As a teenager attending jockey school in his native Panama, Ricardo Santana Jr. said he watched Keeneland races on TV and imagined himself one day riding here. Now, with two days remaining in the 17-day Keeneland Fall Meet, he has 15 wins and is taking aim on his first leading rider title here.
“Keeneland is one of my dream race tracks,” said the 23-year-old rider, who is having his most productive Fall Meet since he became a regular during the October season in 2013. His success includes winning three races on a single program on Oct. 14 and Oct. 25.
Eight of Santana’s wins this meet have been aboard horses trained by Steve Asmussen, making them the most successful jockey-trainer combination of the season. Asmussen has been instrumental in providing a steady stream of winners for Santana that includes Creator, on whom Santana scored his first Grade 1 triumph in the 2016 Arkansas Derby.
Two years ago for Asmussen, Santana rode a future multiple Grade 1 winner owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds named Gun Runner to a debut victory at Churchill Downs. Santana and Gun Runner next captured an allowance at Keeneland and were fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill.
Santana, who credits his agent, Ruben Munoz, with propelling his career from the beginning, has been riding in North America since 2009. He has 908 wins and has ridden the earners of more than $37.7 million. His most lucrative season was 2016, when he won 148 races and rode the earners of nearly $8.2 million.
Santana will move to Churchill for the fall meet that opens Sunday, but his winter plans are undetermined. After a successful season this summer at Saratoga, where he won 13 races, he is considering riding at Aqueduct in New York or returning to Oaklawn Park, where he has been the leading rider every season since 2013.
While achieving success in the U.S., Santana also envisioned bringing his parents here one day, and that wish has become a reality. His mother, Bellanira, and father, who was a jockey in Panama before being injured in a fall from a horse, have appeared in the Winner’s Circle after many of his victories.
“This is the first year they have been here and they are enjoying coming to the races,” Santana said. “I feel blessed that they are here.”