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Only pick in this race? Accusers apologize

Published May 13, 2003

Maybe he was holding his car keys. When a race lasts only two minutes, a man has to beat the traffic.

Maybe he was holding his MP3 player. That new CD by 50 Cent rocks.

Maybe he was holding a Snickers bar. A man gets hungry on his way around the track, you know.

Or, perhaps, what Jose Santos had in his right hand as he approached the finish line of the Kentucky Derby was just this: His reputation. Shortly afterward, he wouldn't have much of grip on that, either.

So what do his accusers do now?

Do they pick Santos up from the sludge? Do they try to help him wipe all the mud off his good name? Do they tell him they're sad over the way his reputation was trampled? Do they apologize for the way he was knocked out of the saddle by those rushing to judgment?

Do the accusers issue the following statement:

If I were Jose Santos, accused cheater, this is what I want to know today. What do the people who turned the best moments of my career into the worst have to say now? Who makes everyone forget all the horrible suspicions they had? Who makes sure I'm remembered as a man wrongly accused instead of a man who got away with something?

After a 90-minute meeting Monday, Santos was cleared of any wrongdoing in this year's Kentucky Derby, and the only question left was what took so long.

Ninety minutes? You could spend nine seconds looking at a series of three photographs, photos so clear you can make out the guy's fingerprints, and you'd come away convinced he had nothing there.

Sleight of hand? Hey, David Copperfield couldn't pull this off. Merlin couldn't pull this off.

Never has a man been accused of cheating at such high stakes on such little evidence. This was the lamest, most laughable accusation in the history of sports, and anyone connected with it should be ashamed.

From the moment Funny Cide won the Derby, however, there has been funny ctuff going on. A few days ago, the Miami Herald published a photo in which something besides the whip appeared to be in Santos' right hand. (I once saw a photo of an alien autopsy. Don't believe that one, either.)

Herald correspondent Frank Carlson sent that photo to Churchill Downs steward Rick Leigh, who immediately declared the photo to be "suspicious" and said there would be an investigation. And they were off, two men rushing to judgment, with Leigh leading by a length on the inside.

Evidently, the idea of looking at other photos never dawned on either, but give the men a break. There couldn't have been more than 3-billion of them out there.

After that, the logic went sort of like this: There was a shadow so it was assumed Santos had something in his hand and therefore it was assumed it was an electronic device and therefore it was assumed it was probably a buzzer and therefore he was cheating and therefore it was assumed that Jose Santos had turned into Rosie Ruiz on a pony.

Then there was the interview. Santos, who is from Chile, says he suggested it could be the Q-Ray bracelet he wore for arthritis. Carlson heard Santos say it was a cue ring to contact his outriders.

Sounds like one of those ads for a clearer cell phone, doesn't it?

For the record, I love the Herald. I worked there for six years, and I learned something every day I paid attention. But this was wrong, rushed and reckless.

Let's recap. A part-time reporter, using non-recorded quotations from a telephone interview with a man who speaks heavily accented English, referring to a single photograph taken by someone who doesn't work for the paper, suggests the winner of the most famous horse race in America may have cheated along the way.

This is your ammunition? This is a story you can't wait to publish?

And herein is a lesson: The track is a horrible place to step in it.

How should the Herald have handled this? Consider this: In 1995, there was another shadow on another photograph. Jockeys Gary Stevens and Pat Day appeared to brush hands, and for a while, there was a rumor that Stevens had an electronic buzzer, and Day disposed of it for him.

For a while, the story goes, there were media outlets investigating the charges. But there was no evidence and, consequently, nothing ever appeared in print.

Look at other photos from roughly the same point in the race and it's fairly obvious the "object" in Santos' hand is merely the jersey from Jerry Bailey, the trailing jockey. Not to mention that Santos was swapping hands as he rode. So he was juggling an object, a whip and, oh, yes, a horse?

Nothing was found on the track. Jockeys, a suspicious lot, seem to agree nothing dodgy went on. Nothing was in Santos' hands, not a garage door opener or a Sharpie for signing autographs or, for that matter, the magic bullet from the Kennedy assassination.

In other words, this was a silly allegation made in haste by a steward who judged too fast and a paper that required no further evidence. If any cheating went on, it was Santos who was cheated out of enjoying his triumph fully.

So, what now?

If I were Santos, this is the next thing that would occur to me.

Sometimes, the world is stubborn about believing the worst of you. There are people who prefer to believe the charge rather than the verdict. Think about it: A batter accuses a pitcher of loading up the baseball. Doesn't the darker side of you believe it? One runner suggests the other is on steroids. Do you find yourself nodding?

If I were Santos, I'd be looking out the window. Any moment now, I'm sure my accusers would be standing there.

What might that be in their hands?

Better be their hat.

[Last modified May 13, 2003, 02:01:16]

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