It’s about 1,400 miles from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. to Saratoga Springs, but jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. and trainer Robertino Diodoro are hoping it’s a well-worth trip this year.
Both Santana Jr. and Diodoro had a solid meet at Oaklawn in the spring. Santana Jr. won his fifth straight title with 53 winners, including a win in the Grade 3 Count Fleet Handicap with multiple graded stakes winner Whitmore.
Meanwhile, Diodoro finished second to Steve Asmussen in the trainer standings with 31 winners, including Inside Straight taking the Grade 2 Oaklawn Park Handicap. He is also coming off four consecutive dominant Turf Paradise training titles, including a record-setting 128 wins in 2014.
With that success, both Santana Jr. and Diodoro decided to carry that momentum into Belmont and Saratoga – and hopefully into the winter at Aqueduct.
This is Santana Jr’s fourth year at Saratoga. His first visit to the Spa came in 2013 during a three-day period at the end of July. He rode just five horses, but one of them – Mico Margarita –came up just a half-length short of winning the Grade 2 Amsterdam.
Santana Jr. came back two years later for a couple of races and finally picked up his first win at Saratoga – this time taking the Amsterdam with Holy Boss. He also won an allowance race Den’s Legacy. At that point, Santana Jr. thought about riding full time at Saratoga.
“I’m a young rider. I really want to make my dream come true and make a name for myself here,” said Santana Jr. “My agent and I made the decision to come here and give it a try. We have nothing to lose.”
Santana Jr. finished among the top 10 riders with 14 wins last year. While Santana Jr. was distant to title winner Jose Ortiz (65 wins), runner-up Irad Ortiz Jr. (57 wins), and Javier Castellano (51 wins), he was pleased with the outcome and wanted to come back for another full-time Saratoga season.
“Last year, I thought we did pretty good,” Santana Jr. said. “I cannot believe how good I did last year. So, I wanted to take another chance.”
Heading into Wednesday’s races, the Panama native is ninth in the jockey standings with seven winners – about the same pace as last year.
“I’m doing great here,” he said. “I’m happy to be here. I think I fit here. I’m young and try hard. I do my best on the track. I love what I am doing. I feel blessed to be here.”
This is the first year at Saratoga for Diodoro, who just missed his first victory on Sunday when Set the Trappe got beaten a nose in the first race. While he and his racing stable are eager for that first win, he is not disappointed nor discouraged with his horses’ performances.
“For the most part, the horses are running well, but we are getting itchy for the win,” said Diodoro, a Calgary native who started his training career at Stampede Park. “With the money being offered here in New York, it’s tough running. We have been fortunate enough to have clients to support us, along with picking up some new clients. They have given us something to work with and it makes our job a little easier. We may have not won a race here, but we’ve held our own.”
Being in New York for the first time for the Belmont spring meet, Diodoro had a strong presence finishing in the top 10 after winning 12-of-45 races while trying to build his stable by claiming horses.
It has been a minor challenge for Diodoro to build his stable, especially since some of his horses have been claimed two weeks into the meet. Before last weekend at Saratoga, Diodoro had 9-of-13 horses claimed.
“We’ve lost a lot of horses, but we also have been fortunate to get some horses back in the claim box,” Diodoro said. “The claims – even down at Belmont – have been wild. When I went to Canterbury Downs for 4-5 days then come back, there would be four new horses in my barn and four would be gone.”
There are two things that Santana Jr. and Diodoro have in common – both have enjoyed Saratoga, and they want to remain in New York for Belmont in the fall and the Aqueduct in the winter after the Saratoga meet ends.
“I love Saratoga. It’s a beautiful racetrack. All of the best riders are here. This racetrack is something special,” Santana Jr. said. “I want to be here [in New York] year-round and make this my home. I want to be one of the top riders in the country.”
For Diodoro, Saratoga has also been a learning experience while managing other stables at Del Mar and Canterbury Downs. However, he can attribute his success to both his owners and his assistants and hopes that will carry downstate.
“I’ve been fortunate with my assistants,” he said. “They are unbelievable. They’re young and good horsemen and good with the owners. There is no way I can do it without them or anyone different. We’ll go back to Belmont. We want to get a good-size stable for the winter at Aqueduct.”