Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr.’s first memories of horse racing begin when he was 5 or 6 years old.
Born in Panama, he remembers going to the green and white grandstand of Hipodromo Presidente Remon, the country’s only track, to see his father race.
“I loved watching my dad ride; and I always loved the horses,” Santana said.
Santana also remembers watching the Breeders’ Cup on television as a small child. At that time, he never dreamed he would compete in the championship event. But at 24, Santana has been to four Breeders’ Cups, two Kentucky Derbys and has topped Oaklawn Park’s jockey standings for four consecutive years.
When Santana was 14, his father was paralyzed in a riding accident. But this did not deter Santana Jr. from racing. In fact, he was motivated to go to work to help his family. He graduated from the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School at Presidente Remon at age 16 in December 2008.
He won his first race one week later. As he continued winning races, agent Ruben Munoz encouraged Santana to compete in the U.S. Four months later, they were headed to Delaware Park. Santana, with 47 wins, was the leading apprentice rider in Panama. He was 16.
“I was coming with one dream. My family is really poor. I wanted to make money to support my family,” Santana said.
With Munoz as a mentor, Santana immediately started making progress toward accomplishing these goals. In his first three months riding in America, he rode 19 winners from 137 mounts.
Then, on November 22, 2009, Santana’s apprentice year was interrupted. He was riding a horse named Ship of Fools and was unseated. As a result, Santana had three broken bones in his back. His recovered for five months and returned to racing at Delaware Park on May 1, 2010.
In each subsequent year, Santana kept climbing the racing ladder.
In 2011, Santana competed at Oaklawn Park for the first time and gained his first stakes victory. The following year, he won his first leading rider title, topping the standings at Delaware Park, and he rode in his first Breeders’ Cup race. In 2013, Santana won his first of four consecutive leading rider titles at Oaklawn.
He reached another milestone in 2014 when he went to the Kentucky Derby for the first time with Southwest Stakes winner Tapiture.
“Being at the Kentucky Derby was really emotional. I don’t think I have the words to explain how happy I was to be there,” Santana said. “The moment that you are going to the paddock and the moment that you are in the gate — it’s something that you feel only one time in your life.”
In 2016, Santana was Oaklawn’s leading rider with 80 wins, and he set a track record for single-season purse earnings ($4,064,073). His 80th win was his first Grade 1 and the richest of his career: the $1 million Arkansas Derby. His mount, Creator, pulled off an 11.60-1 upset and came from 15 lengths back to win.
“Winning the Arkansas Derby was one of my favorite moments of my life. It was a dream come true,” Santana said. “I wanted to win the race so bad. And then God gave me the chance and a nice horse. When I got up to the wire first, I couldn’t believe I had won the race. After two days passed, I still couldn’t believe it.”
Creator took Santana to his second Kentucky Derby, but the horse did not close like he did in the Arkansas Derby. Creator’s team chose to skip the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, and come back for the Belmont Stakes with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. Creator won the final leg of the Triple Crown at 16.40-1 by a nose.
In the second half of 2016, Santana was successful at two iconic American racetracks: he placed in the top ten in the jockey standings at Saratoga Race Course and for the Keeneland fall meet. He also rode in the 90th Gazi Derby, Turkey’s most prestigious horse race, in Istanbul.
Santana has ground to make up if he is going to win his fifth leading rider title at Oaklawn. He sat out the first five days of the 2017 season, but on his first day back, he won his first start.
“I thank God everything is going well. I’m helping my mom, and I’m helping my dad. I’m really happy. My dreams are to first of all keep working hard, helping them and making them happy,” Santana said. “After that, I would love to win the Kentucky Derby, win the Breeders’ Cup and win a lot of big races. I have a lot of big dreams. I’m going to keep working hard to try to make it come true.”