Bill Heller on Jose Santos: Above It All

SantosThe 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.

3 thoughts on “Bill Heller on Jose Santos: Above It All

  1. That whole business of the “buzzer” that Santos allegedly had was utter nonsense, and likely some sour grapes because it was a New York Bred (Funny Cide) who won the 2003 Derby (and I had Funny Cide in the first future pool at 93-1 that year!). He just happened to peak in the Derby and Preakness, only showing that form when he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup the next year (which I remember as that Saturday afternoon, Belmont Park was as dead as I had ever seen it for a major stakes day).

    On another front, with this being the All-Star break, I wrote an extensive reply to an article Vic Zast wrote on Monday (7/11) on the board I moderate (, a link to Mr. Zast’s blog appears at the top), reviving what actually is an old idea of mine: Tracks taking advantage of the Wednesday following the All-Star Game to put together a four-hour, made-for-TV 11-race program that could air on Versus that Wednesday (July 11 in 2012) from 7:00-11:00 PM Eastern Time. As I noted in my reply, this would include from Belmont Park the Jaipur and Man o’War, moving both stakes onto that Wednesday program (that also would be anchored by the Delaware Oaks and Del ‘Cap at Delaware Park, Virginia Derby at Colonial, West Va. Derby at Mountaineer and American Oaks and Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park among other races). It would require some adjustments (including Colonial putting in lights on the turf course and Mountaineer running a special Wednesday program) and tracks having to break tradition to run major races in the middle of the week, but to me it would be worth doing to bring in an audience desperately looking for sports that particular Wednesday.

    In Belmont’s case, for 2012 I would seriously be also looking at making that Wednesday (July 11) the last day of the spring meet at Belmont with a special 10 or 11-race “Party In The Park” program and first post at 3:00 PM, regardless of whether or not the Jaipur and Man o’War wound up being part of the telecast suggested. This would be a great way to close out the spring meet at Belmont while also allowing for a little over a week off before Saratoga, which I’m sure many would not mind on a couple of fronts:

    1. For many, the move to Saratoga is much different than that between Belmont and Aqueduct.

    2. The Meadowlands that Saturday has The Meadowlands Pace, which is the biggest night program of the year in Harness Racing. Meadowlands always gets a big crowd for that as a rule.

    I don’t think NYRA would lose too much by taking off the weekend before Saratoga, especially if the meet were to end with a Wednesday program on the slowest day of the year in sports when many more people might very well come out, especially if the day was well-promoted.

  2. Hi there…..would love to attend and purchase a book tonight at THE PARTING GLASS —– but have to go to THE NEW YORK HORSE PARK advisory board meeting.

    I will pick up a copy as soon as I can. Good luck!

    Elaine Hume Peake

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