Santana back on Tapiture for Kentucky Derby


LITTLE ROCK — The ultimate independent contractor, a thoroughbred jockey needs a short-term memory to deal with demotions precipitated by politics and the star quality of others.

Only 21, Ricardo Santana Jr. is a fast learner.

Santana punctuated his second consecutive Oaklawn Park riding title with four winners on April 12. But he watched from the jocks’ room that afternoon when Tapiture — a horse he had ridden with success in five straight races — ran a non-threatening fourth in the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

Trainer Steve Asmussen bumped Santana in favor of Joel Rosario, who won the 2013 Kentucky Derby aboard Orb and might have been recognized as the best rider in the land last year if he had not missed six weeks with a fractured bone in his foot.

“I don’t feel bad when he take me off the horse,” Rosario said Wednesday from the jockeys’ quarters at Churchill Downs. “(Asmussen) put a lot of money in my pocket. I can’t go to him and complain … can’t cry about it.”

When Asmussen switched to Rosario, he said the jockey asked for the mount and described the move as providing “the best possible chance at the Kentucky Derby …” for Tapiture.

Apparently, Rosario did not care for Tapiture’s chances in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and jumped back to General a Rod, winner of the Gulfstream Park Derby and third in the Florida Derby. In turn, Asmussen returned to his main man, Santana, for Tapiture.

Bumping a regular rider for one with a bigger reputation is part of the business and easier to swallow when you think about what an NFL owner would do if presented the opportunity to hire Tom Brady for a championship game or stick with his competent, season-long starter.

A handicapper who can overlook Tapiture’s finish in the Arkansas Derby will find some reasons to consider the colt on Saturday, including the record with Santana in the saddle.

The four times they have teamed up in stakes races, they have never been worse than third and have never finished more than a half-length behind the winner. That record was posted at Oaklawn and Churchill Downs, racetracks with similar surfaces. Every year, some Kentucky Derby horses disappoint because they do not take to the Churchill dirt.

Asked about his success with the son of Tapit, Santana said, “I know him a lot. The different rider, he don’t know the horse. Horses know people.”

This will be Santana’s first Kentucky Derby, but the race is big in his native Panama, birthplace of many riders including Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay Jr., and he has watched the running for years.

“A lot of riders in Panama want to run in this race,” he said. “For me, that’s how you say … that was my dream.”

Santana, who moved to the U.S. a few years ago and lives in Hot Springs, rode at Churchill on the day of the 2013 Kentucky Derby. “It is crazy,” he said. “A lot of people call your name.”

Tapiture, who won the Southwest at Oaklawn, drew the No. 15 post and is 15-1 on the morning line.

Danza, who won the Arkansas Derby at 41-1 and posted a nice speed figure in the process, is fourth choice at 10-1. Rebel winner Hoppertunity is the 6-1 second choice. Second in the Arkansas Derby, Ride On Curlin is 15-1.

Opening at 5-2, California Chrome could be the shortest priced favorite at post time since Big Brown paid $6.80 in 2008. The winner of four straight, California Chrome will prevail with a repeat of his Santa Derby performance, but he has never raced outside California and sometimes breaks slowly.

If jockey Mike Smith had been in the jockeys’ quarters early Wednesday afternoon, I would have asked him how Hoppertunity could make up 5 1/2 lengths on California Chrome. A plausible answer would have convinced me to support his horse.

Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.