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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Apprentice Jockey Having A Hot Winter

By Craig Donnelly
Inquirer Staff Writer

February 9, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

Growing up in meager surroundings outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, Danny Santana longed to become a jockey.

His father, Efrain, often was away while riding with modest success along the East Coast in the United States, and Danny saw his future as a jockey as "a way out."

During high school, many of his friends did not know the route they would follow after graduation. But Danny Santana knew exactly what his next step would be.

Santana had been accepted by the Escuela Vocacional Hipica, or Vocational Equine School, at the El Comandante racetrack in San Juan.

Among his boyhood idols were John Velazquez, now the leading jockey at Gulfstream Park, and Alex Solis, a star on the West Coast and the regular rider of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect, who are graduates of the jockey school and are easily recognized as among the elite of their profession.

Santana spent the first year at the school learning about the racing industry and studying the thoroughbred.

In the second year, he learned the intricacies of horsemanship, and won some 30 races upon graduation with the "bug," or seven-pound weight allowance given to apprentice jockeys.

Santana's big opportunity came last year when Roberto Rosado, a jockey at Philadelphia Park and a boyhood friend of Santana's, obtained tapes of Santana's races at El Comandante. Rosado showed them to Jose Morales Jr., a jockey's agent whose father was a rider for 18 years.

Morales was impressed. He agreed to "hustle" mounts for Santana after his arrival on the mainland last October.

Business was fair for the 5-foot-7, 109-pound Santana, but in recent weeks, the 19-year-old has caught fire. He has won six races in the last two weeks, including three on Jan. 31.

Morales not only serves as Santana's agent but also is his interpreter, chauffeur and roommate in Trevose, Bucks County.

Santana speaks very little English but plans to enroll at a local high school to improve his understanding of the language.

He has yet to take a driver's test, forcing Morales to take him places.

"He wants to be taken to the mall or somewhere else. It's a pain in the butt sometimes, but he needs the help," Morales said.

Santana begins most days by arriving at the track at 6 a.m. He usually exercises about 10 horses each morning, a necessary labor to accommodate clients and, hopefully, to earn a favor from other horsemen.

The quiet teenager has enjoyed the lucrative end of the business but also must endure the difficult realities of winter racing.

During a race on one brutally cold afternoon in January, he repeatedly was struck by frozen clods, which shattered two pairs of goggles - vital protection for the eyes at this time of year.

Santana got his biggest early boost from trainer Bill Anderson, who rides Santana "first call," which means he is the first jockey Anderson seeks to ride his horses.

"I liked him from the first time I saw him," Anderson recalled. "He's really coming along lately. He's got a good seat and does his best to follow instructions. Horses really run for him. For a while there I was thinking, 'Am I the only one who's seeing this?' "

Phil Aristone also has had success with Santana.

"He's a polished, good, heady rider," Aristone said. "He knows how to rate a horse - he doesn't rush them. He should have a future even after he loses the 'bug' [in July]."

For now, Santana says, his "number one thing is to take care of my family. I send them money every week. Someday I want to get married and have a big family. And I want to stay around here."

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