The life of a jockey would, inherently, seem to have more than enough drama to make its narrative compelling. Small of stature, often from modest (at best) beginnings, the men who make their living on horseback daily risk injury or worse, fighting their own biology to keep their weights low and their strength high.
Add an abusive childhood, a philandering protagonist, and a nationwide scandal that calls into question the integrity of America’s most famous race, and really, what biographer could resist?
Bill Heller didn’t. Following his 2010 book about jockey Randy Romero, Heller, at the suggestion of Thoroughbred owner Bob Goodman, took on the life of José Santos, jockey of 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide and 2007 Hall of Fame inductee.
“There are certain people,” said Heller recently from his home in New York’s Capital District, not far from Saratoga Racecourse, “whose biography is a no-brainer to do. This was a great story.”
In many ways, Romero’s and Santos’s stories are similar. Both jockeys came from poor families; both had difficult relationships with their fathers; both experienced a rollercoaster of success and setbacks before finding redemption in the Hall of Fame. Heller noted that even their career totals are similar: In a 26-year career, Romero rode 26,091 starts with 4,294 winners (16%); Santos rode for 23 years, with 4,093 winners from 24,923 mounts (15.7%). Both worked, for a short time, as jockey Fernando Jara’s agent.
“But they’re completely different people,” observed Heller. “I didn’t know that much about José when I started the book.”
He did know a little about one scandal in which José was involved, the notorious Allumeuse incident at Saratoga, in which the wrong horse was disqualified, costing bettors thousands. Heller had written about it in a previous book, Saratoga Tales.
And it was a second scandal, the one that one man in Miami stirred up after the 2004 Kentucky Derby, that Heller sees as the heart of the book. It is, he says, the part of the book of which he is proudest.
In the days following that Derby, won for the first time by a horse bred in New York State, a story in the Miami Herald alleged that Santos was carrying an illegal buzzer in his hand. Heller traces the origins of the story and its resolutions, explaining how such a poorly researched story made it into print in the first place, and its effects on Santos and his family.
Heller, who admits that he’s better at writing books than he is at selling them, self-published this book, aware that it was a financially risky proposition.
He recently launched a website at which he sells his books and advertises upcoming signings and appearances, several of which are scheduled to coincide with the Saratoga meet.
For Heller, the joy of the writing books far outweighs the challenges of selling them.
“I do this because I love doing it. If someone wants to give me the privilege of writing their life story, I take it seriously and I work hard at it.
“Each story takes on its own life, and the great thing about writing a book is that you can take your time to do it, never really sure of where it’s going.”
Heller will be at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on Saratoga’s opening day, July 22. On Thursday, July 28, he’ll be at the Parting Glass with Santos; and on Monday, August 22, he’ll return to the Hall of Fame.