New York Jose Santos enjoyed the ride, and he was smiling even after it ended in defeat for Funny Cide on a gloomy, rainy day.
As Santos guided Funny Cide onto the track for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, he grinned and acknowledged the thundering cheers of 101,864 partisan fans eager to see the New York-bred gelding become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
"I think 864 were rooting for another horse, the rest were rooting for Funny Cide," Santos said.
Funny Cide didn't like the sloppy goo he was forced to run in, and he tugged relentlessly against Santos' hold from the start. After the gate opened, Santos shot a quick glance to his left, already concerned about rival Empire Maker along the rail.
He had reason to be. Empire Maker and jockey Jerry Bailey tucked in behind front-running Funny Cide, tracking the gelding to the last of Belmont Park's sweeping turns before taking the lead for good at the top of the stretch.
"I knew exactly what was going to happen," Santos said. "I feel Jerry Bailey right next to me."
From there, Funny Cide and Santos caught gobs of mud thrown in their faces by the flying hooves of Empire Maker, who won by three-quarters of a length. Ten Most Wanted also sailed by the bogged down Funny Cide, who was third.
"I thought he would handle in the slop better," Santos said. "He was swishing back and forth and I knew I was in trouble. He's a brave horse, but he was not handling the track. This is not a cheap excuse."
Asked what he would do differently, Santos replied, "I'd keep Mother Nature away."
After the race, Funny Cide acted as though he knew what had happened.
"He put his head down," Santos said.
Santos was taken by surprise when they galloped back toward the cold, wet crowd.
"I never see a horse get beat, and there they were still cheering for me," he said.
Santos handled the five-week grind of the Triple Crown races with class, especially when hit with a baseless accusation that he used an illegal electrical device to prod Funny Cide to victory in the Kentucky Derby.
The allegation shook up his tight-knit family, and his young children caught grief from their schoolmates about having a father who cheated.
After it was determined that Santos had done nothing wrong, he and Funny Cide romped to a 93Â¼4-length victory in the Preakness, setting the stage for a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont.
Santos became a media favorite, along with Funny Cide's 10 owners and his trainer, Barclay Tagg.
"I was in the newspapers every day. People followed me everywhere," Santos said. "It was wonderful. I hope I made you guys feel real good, too."
Funny Cide lives at Belmont Park. The Chilean-born Santos rides regularly at the track, so the locals consider him to be one of their own.