Not over hill, he's over top

Back in saddle after decades, Santoro making up for lost time at age 58 with steeplechase success

Hunt Cup

April 26, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN REPORTER

When Billy Santoro saddles up in today's 112th Hunt Cup, the mother of Maryland timber races, he'll be taking on more than the horses.

Santoro, of Monkton, will be racing Father Time.

The 58-year-old rider of favored Private Attack is nearing the end of his jockey career - though not by choice. In 22 months, Santoro will be given the boot by the National Steeplechase Association, which sets a jockey's age limit at 60.

More's the pity. After a 36-year hiatus, Santoro began riding competitively two years ago and won a prestigious race last week - the Grand National in Butler. Last year, he won the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup.

Today, in Glyndon, he'll attempt to become the oldest jockey to win the 4-mile, 22-fence Maryland Hunt Cup.

Retirement is a finish line that Santoro would rather not cross.

In nine starts this year, he has three victories, two seconds and a third. Put the gray-haired jockey on a horse and it's Hi-yo silver, awaaay . . .

"I can ride with the [20-something] boys," said Santoro, a rugged-faced bantam of a man. "A lot of people think what I'm doing is cool."

He wears reading glasses and hearing aids. But the flesh is willing, and the spirit? Never better.

"[Riding] is something I should have done when it was more age-appropriate," he said. "But if the opportunity is now ... what the hell, why not?"

The retirement-age rule was instituted in 2005 in the aftermath of a critical injury to Irv Naylor in the 1999 Grand National. Naylor, then 63, was thrown from his mount and suffered a broken neck. He remains paralyzed from the waist down.

Now 71, Naylor denies the notion that his age factored into the accident. And he believes Santoro should challenge the NSA's so-called "Naylor Rule" if he sees fit.

"Generally, it's a good rule, but you can't ignore the individual," said Naylor, of York, Pa. "Billy should keep riding as long as he feels good.

"In the Grand National, he beat Charlie Fenwick [III]. Now, nobody rides a better finish than Charlie Fenwick, and here Billy whips his [butt] by a couple of lengths."

Though Santoro said he doesn't plan to contest the retirement-age rule, he might have grounds to do so, said Dianna Johnston, assistant legal counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington.

"If a jockey meets the statutory definition of `employee' [of the steeplechase association] - and that's a big if - then the onus is on the employer to prove it's necessary to have this age-based cut-off," Johnston said.

Naylor, for one, isn't surprised that Santoro is feeling his oats at his age.

"I can understand the fire in Billy's belly," he said. "He's making up for lost time."

A lifelong racing buff - his father was a veterinarian - Santoro also loves the theater. Early on, he faced a career choice. Steeplechase or stage? Equines or Equus?

Spills in two Maryland steeplechase races that he had entered, plus a hard look at the lifestyles of his peers settled things for Santoro, then 20.

Acting won out.

"I saw all these horsemen who were crippled, broken, alcoholic and half-addicted to painkillers," Santoro said. "That was the prod that moved me away from horses."

He enrolled in Boston University's School of Fine Arts, then spent 12 years on stage, traversing the country with theater groups performing the works of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Mamet.

Racing was all but forgotten.

"The closest I got to smelling a horse was playing the role of Bo, the young rodeo cowboy in [William Inge's] Bus Stop," Santoro said. "That part was very close to my heart."

In 1983, he moved to Hollywood and landed a role as Mike Hammer's dentist in the television detective series. Several TV miniseries followed, including Princess Daisy, a schlocky film based on a Judith Krantz novel in which Santoro plays the part of a riding instructor.

The money was OK, but something gnawed at Santoro - a hankering to hang around those mounts he had left almost 20 years before. More and more, he would reminisce about his youth, growing up amid ponies and thoroughbreds in Derby Line, Vt., and Middleburg, Va.

"When I was a kid, my father told me: `To be a real horseman, you've got to fall off the horse at least six times,' " Santoro said. "So I took Sam, our old workhorse, to the field one day, rode him bareback and made him buck until I'd fallen six times.

"Then I rushed into the house and said, `Guess what, Mom? I'm a real rider now!'"

Flashback piled on flashback until Santoro quit acting and headed east. A stable job he would have.

In 1989, Santoro returned to Monkton and became a trainer at Prospect Farm. He quickly gained a following as a horse whisperer - a shrink for wayward thoroughbreds - and billed himself as one who could straighten out delinquent 2-year-olds.

His life still has its drama. Five years ago, while breaking a filly, Santoro was slammed into a concrete wall and knocked unconscious.

"I thought he was dead," said farm manager Poncho Valdez, who performed CPR. Three days later, Santoro returned to work.

Still, he ached to ride in races.

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