There ordinarily is no mystery about the qualities that make a jockey successful. He must have physical strength; he must have the quick reflexes and judgment that comprise tactical ability; and, of course, he has to be able to get good horses to ride.
But occasionally a rider comes along who transcends these mundane requirements, who seems blessed with an indefinable magic. Steve Cauthen was like that when he stunned the racing world in 1979. And magic seems to be the only explanation for the performance of Jose Santos in Florida the past several weeks.
In the first 14 days of the Gulfstream Park season, Santos has won 26 races -- a rate that would shatter all riding records at this highly competitive meeting. But his statistics don't begin to convey how remarkable Santos has been.
Most jockeys who dominate race meetings do so because they get their pick of the best mounts. But Santos gets on the most implausible-looking horses and seemingly transforms them.
In a four-day period earlier this month, he rode in three stakes and won them all, aboard Irish Sur ($42.60), Flying Pigeon ($18) and Cherokee Fast ($65.60). People who have been watching him are beginning to suspect that the jockey is as important as the ability of the horses he rides. And they know that this 23-year-old from Chile has the potential to become one of the elite members of his profession.
Although his name is new to most racing fans, Santos would laugh at the suggestion that he is an overnight sensation. The son of a jockey, he started working at the track in his home town of Concepcion when he was 8, began to gallop horses at the age of 12 and rode in competition for the first time when he was 15.
After some success in his native country, he spent four years in Colombia, the minor leagues of South American racing. But he always wanted to come to the United States, and on Jan. 3, 1984, he arrived here with no job contacts and no knowledge of English.
He spent four futile months roaming around the Hialeah stable area, trying to get himself established, but he got only a handful of opportunities to ride in races. Santos was getting ready to go back to Chile when a veteran trainer named Phil Simms perceived that this struggling kid was a diamond in the rough.
"After being in this game for 50 years, you get to know riders," Simms said. "In the morning, you could see he had good hands and he worked horses like a rider should. After I rode him on a few horses, I knew. He's got the ability to know when trouble is going to happen in a race before it happens."
The winners he rode for Simms gained the jockey some attention and his success began to snowball. By the end of the year, most of the Florida racing community was aware of Santos' virtues.
He is a powerful finisher who looks picture-perfect on a horse in the stretch drive. He's gutsy and willing to drive his mounts through narrow openings. He is smart tactically. But it's the magic that is most fascinating about him.
Santos will get on horses with bad or mediocre form, and will do nothing noticeably brilliant during the race -- but the horses somehow respond to him and win.
Last week, he rode a colt named Flip Flip, whose record was mediocre and who had lost his previous start by more than 15 lengths. Santos' performance wasn't a great esthetic or tactical triumph; he was parked three horses wide around the first turn and five wide around the final turn. But Flip Flip rallied relentlessly and scored a photo-finish victory that defied rational explanation.
Much of the jockey's success has come in route races and, Santos said, through an interpreter, "When a horse looks like he doesn't have a shot, I don't rush him. I just let him go his own way the first half-mile. I let him relax and save all he has for the end."
Whatever he is doing, he had better not change a thing. If Santos can sustain his current level of performance, he is going to be a star in his profession. Plenty of people here are already convinced he is going to make it.
"This boy," said Simms, "is the type who can win a hundred races a year by noses and necks that the average rider wouldn't win. That's how good he is. He can ride with Cordero, Pincay, McCarron. He can ride with anybody in the country."