After an acting career, the 57-year-old jockey returned to his roots and is making up for lost time.
Playwright William Shakespeare must have known someone like jockey William Santoro when he penned, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…”
Because at age 57, Santoro is definitely working on yet another career in his full life, one that has heads turning and trainers interested.
When Santoro appeared on the circuit a few years ago, most of the steeplechase set were curious. A few even said, “Who is the old guy?”
But it was not like the lean, gray-haired gentleman with the killer smile just woke up and said, “Hey I feel like riding some steeplechase horses.” In fact Santoro, a long-time horseman, grew up in two of the most prestigious hunt country areas of the Mid-Atlantic region.
In the early 1950s, his father moved his veterinary practice to Loudoun County, Virginia, leasing a farm near Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Farm.
“I started breaking horses when I was about 8 or 9,” Santoro said. “I grew up foxhunting, showing, playing polo and doing competitive trail rides. Growing up around Paul Mellon’s farm I frequently encountered Mr. Mellon while out schooling horses.”
Santoro added, “If you really want to put this age thing into steeplechasing perspective, I was playmates with Denny Brown, retired jockey Gus Brown’s father.”
When Santoro was a bit older, his family moved again, this time to the heart of Maryland’s hunt country, Monkton. This is where he got his first taste of riding steeplechasers, with Cary Jackson being one of the first owners for whom he rode.
In 1969, Santoro entered his first serious jump race at My Lady’s Manor (Md.) and then the Grand National (Md.) in 1970. Neither ride was successful, and he felt himself succumbing to the pull of acting. So he traded in his riding boots for greasepaint and the red-hot lights of the stage.
A Different Stage
Santoro left the horse world and entered The School of Fine and Applied Arts in Boston (Mass.). For many years, Santoro’s life and love was the stage. He liked doing everything from Shakespeare to Mamet and anything in between. He wanted to be challenged constantly, so he decided to take the biggest leap of all and go to Hollywood in the 1980s.
But it wasn’t exactly what he dreamed it would be.
“My highest point in my acting career was always working on stage,” Santoro said. “The low was when I got to Los Angeles. With theater, the classroom is your world. If you want to study for a role you watch people. Stuff comes out of you that you had not a clue was inside of you. I was disappointed with Los Angeles. It was just not for me.”
Before he left, Santoro did make two made-for-TV films, Princess Daisy (1983), where he played a riding instructor, and Her Life As A Man (1984), where he portrayed a proper waiter.
He has caught the most ribbing by his steeplechase friends for Princess Daisy and calls it, “the film that won’t go away.” Although Princess Daisy was no award winner, he did work with the likes of Robert Urich, Lindsay Wagner, Rupert Everett, Stacy Keach and Ringo Starr.
After being burned by the Hollywood machine, Santoro went back to his roots—riding—and for the past 18 years he’s been running his training stable, Prospect Farm in Maryland.
“I did not just come back to it. I have ridden and trained a few jumpers and ridden a few races over the years, just not that seriously,” Santoro said. “I never really got it out of my system, but I always had a lot of people who were close to me who were always discouraging me and telling me, ‘No, you’re too old for this; you don’t want to do this.’ ”
Enter stage left: Maryland trainer Alicia Murphy.
Santoro, who had been dating Murphy for some time, started riding for her almost as a dare.
“She ran a horse, and the horse didn’t really perform well. I said to her, ‘I can do a better job than that.’ I noticed a notable lack of response, so a couple of days later I said, ‘You really didn’t respond when I said such and such.’ All of a sudden she said, ‘You want me to tell my owners you are going to ride their horses over fences?’ And that’s how it began.”
Murphy knew selling the idea of a much older rider as her new stable jockey wasn’t going to fly unless she had some proof. She had Santoro lease a horse named Sugar Hall and ride him under his colors, and Sugar Hall promptly won the maiden hurdle at the Marlborough Hunt Races (Md.).
“I was impressed,” Murphy said. “Billy did an awesome job. He could not have had a better trial there. He did earn it.”
After a few more successful rounds and flat wins, his next project was a tricky horse named Wicklow Bound. Murphy and Santoro went about getting the difficult horse to like racing again. In 2006, Santoro and Wicklow Bound won their first sanctioned race in the maiden hurdle at Foxfield (Va.).
Like most first-time winners, Santoro had the obligatory dousing of water, only the jockeys decided to really make it a proper drenching.
“He was so full of run that he was hard to pull up, so Alicia and the rest of them had plenty of time to set it up,” Santoro said. “There was a hose, salad bowls, a cooler and many buckets. They really did not hold back. It’s one of my favorite racing moments.”
The 2007 season was also good for Santoro. He placed fourth in the $15,000 Streett Memorial at My Lady’s Manor with Sportsmans Hall’s Private Attack, who also placed second in the $15,000 Murray Memorial at The Grand National and then won the open timber at the Potomac Hunt Races (Md.). But the year’s highlight was in November when he won the four-mile Pennsylvania Hunt Cup on Irvin S. Naylor’s Earmark for trainer William Meister.
Meister was happy to have him ride for him.
“It’s nice to get a jockey who listens to everything you say,” Meister said.
But it’s not like Santoro is some weekend rider. He has his own barn in Monkton full of horses to train every day, and he and Murphy are active sports junkies. In fact, it’s safe to say he would probably put a few of the younger jockeys to shame with his activity level.
“Once you hit about 30 or so you lose a lot of elasticity,” Santoro said. “I do a lot of stretching to stay limber, but the challenge to my mortality is around every corner with Alicia. We do rock climbing, mountain biking, and now I’m taking up skiing again.”
Two Careers As One
Santoro said that the careers of acting and race riding are more comparable than people imagine.
“The link between acting and steeplechasing is really visceral. It runs like a current through me because they’re so similar,” Santoro said. “I used to attribute it to an adrenaline rush, but with maturity I seem to have refined those thoughts.
“If you run at a fence at 30 miles an hour, you better be pretty well focused,” he explained. “It’s the same for acting—when you walk out onto a stage and you clean your head and open yourself to the moment, there’s a point when you look the other actor in the eye and you see what’s coming. When they give back, there’s the same kind of electrical charge you have in racing.”
Santoro said his acting career has only helped him hone his skills and give him this acute clarity of focus. Kind of like blocking for a part, Santoro reads a course almost like a script.
“I really like to walk the course,” Santoro said. “You can see spots on the course that are going to be to your advantage. Of course, you can’t account for every moment, but I like to give myself landmarks. If you’re riding a hurdle race, you know that this point in the race should be starting to shape up for you.”
Santoro said he’s privileged to ride for Murphy and be part of her team. Murphy has had such notables under her tutelage as Matt McCarron and Colvin “Gregg” Ryan.
In 2006, trainer Kathy McKenna asked Santoro at the last minute to ride Gil Johnston’s Aluckyperk at Fair Hill (Md.). The pair won by 3 lengths.
“I love sitting on horses cold,” Santoro said. “There’s something special about sitting on them for the first time. You don’t know him; he doesn’t know you, and there’s something very special that is born of that first meeting. At my farm, I have about 20 to 30 horses in work. I probably sit on about 100 to 200 per year for various disciplines.”
Santoro added, laughing, “I feel grateful to Kathy for having the courage to use the old man. I think a lot of other people are tentative about getting me killed. My girlfriend, on the other hand, has no problem with that.”
He’s ridden for Janet Elliot and Bruce Miller and hopes other trainers will think of him when they have an open ride. But it’s still a toss up on which is his favorite, hurdles or timber.
“I love a good hurdle race, but the timber and hurdles are two different kettles of fish,” Santoro said. “The fences are so different, and you’ve got to love the speed of the hurdles. You have to free yourself up so that doesn’t bother you. You have to let your senses take over.”
The Setting Sun
But, sadly, Santoro only has a few more seasons left since the cut-off age for sanctioned racing eligibility is 60. Nevertheless, he’s thinking about more.
“There’s one thing that’s sitting out there right now, something up until now I never had dangled in front of my nose, and that’s the Maryland Hunt Cup,” Santoro said. “Private Attack is an extraordinary horse. He’s gotten bigger and is a monster now, evenly matching his intelligence and jumping ability.”
A former polo pony, Private Attack was the Maryland Steeplechasing Novice Timber Horse of the Year in 2005, and Murphy and Santoro are pointing him to the big wood.
“It would be a great spring if we could do the Maryland Hunt Cup with Private,” Santoro said. “But we still have a long time until then.”
Sarah L. Greenhalgh