It’s Monday evening after Kentucky Derby weekend and Jockey Ricardo Santana Junior has spent most of the day resting. It’s a well-earned rest too. He has just ridden three Grade One winners in 24 hours all under the harshed spotlight in the sport. In all the rider landed six victories at Churchill Downs, as the World tuned in to see the build-up to the most famous race in the World, while he also guiding Lady Apple to a superb third place in the Kentucky Oaks. It would be easy to benchmark this past weekend as a career-best return for the native of Panama, after all the last person to sweep the La Troienne, Churchill Downs Stakes and Humana Distaff in the same year was the great Jerry Bailey in 2003. It all must seem a long way from his start in life, growing up in a poor neighbourhood in his home country but when he left there aged 16 he was following a dream, and that is now becoming a reality.
“It was a big weekend! To win three grade one in two days is pretty amazing.” Was the modest assessment from Ricardo at the end of a distorted WhatsApp call with a heavy delay on the line. “We have a great team; we have a really good day Saturday.”
Although the technology was letting us down and making conversation difficult Ricardo spoke compellingly but never boastfully about what had transpired over the previous few days. It’s perhaps a sign of his journey to this point in his life that keeps him so grounded. Even faced with effusive praise, he is quick to sharpen the focus on others, those who have helped him find the right path. Tragedy struck his family early in Ricardo’s life when his father, a jockey, was consigned to a wheelchair following an accident. You’d think that might be enough to put any young man off riding horses, but a deep love for the sport had already embedded itself, and Ricardo saw his opportunity to turn this passion into a way to help his loved ones.
“My Mum and Dad didn’t want me to become a jockey, but I told them this is what I wanted to do and was my dream.” Recalls Ricardo with a sense of mischief in his voice. “When my Dad was a jockey I was always going to the track with him in the morning. I really started to like horse racing more and more every time I went so I decided I wanted to follow his dream. He is the only one to ride horses in my family.
“With my Dad in a wheelchair, I felt I needed to get out of the country to help my family survive and make some money to help them. That’s why I decided I needed to come to the US at 16-years-old to try and make my dreams come true.”
Once in America, Ricardo would find another mentor to inspire him in the form of Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Inspiration perhaps underplays the trainer’s role in the narrative of Ricardo Santana Junior story with the rider crediting him with a lot more than just that.
“I feel he is the one who made me who I am today; he’s the one who has given me these fantastic opportunities to be who I am right now” Ricardo explains clearly full of respect for his number one client. “I’ve been riding for Steve around seven years, and we’ve put in a lot of hard work. I feel I’m getting better every year, I’m more confident in myself now, he’s helped me a lot to get me to where I am. He’s taught me a lot about how to ride certain horses and in different types of races. We have a good relationship both on and off the track.”
The partnership is certainly paying dividends for both parties at the moment with pair combining for plenty of big race success. While their three Grade Ones will grab the headlines, and rightly so, the performance of the improving Lady Apple in the Kentucky Oaks shouldn’t be overlooked. The filly co-owned by Phoenix Thoroughbreds and KatieRich Farms has been a massive improver in her three-year-old season, winning three races on the bounce prior to her third placing in the premier race for fillies. A performance that justified the faith her rider had placed in her from the very beginning of their association.
“This is one of the fillies we’ve been working on ever since Steve bought her after her debut at Keeneland.” reflects Ricardo with an element of pride. “She was running in shorter races, and we had confidence that she would go longer. After I rode her to win her maiden at Oaklawn, I said to Steve ‘I would like to see this filly run over a mile or a mile sixteenth’ and the first time she ran over that sort of trip she ran some really good numbers. The second time she ran over the mile sixteenth she won the Fantasy Stakes, and again she produced more big numbers. I feel she’s improving every time she runs.
“I was really happy with her run in the Oaks. She only ran two and a half weeks ago and bumped into one of the best three-year-old fillies in the World on Friday, so I think she’s run a really big race. Since she’s turned three-years-old, she’s really improved and is training really well. Steve has done a great job with her, and I think we are going to have a really good time with this filly.”
He’s been right about Lady Apple so far so with luck we will see more of her competing well at the highest level. As for her jockey, given his hard work and dedication so far, all things being equal, it’s clear he’s headed for more weekends like the one just past.