LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Through the mud that was caked on his face, Jose Santos' satisfaction could not be suppressed.
"I have a helluva trip," the jockey said after riding Limehouse to a respectable fourth-place finish in the 130th Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "Helluva horse. I don't see how they could not run him in the Preakness."
Limehouse, the unheralded entry from Dogwood Stable in Aiken, S.C., followed a well-crafted script and proved he was capable of handling the big distances against the best competition.
His performance, even though it was just out of the money, has Dogwood president Cot Campbell and trainer Todd Pletcher considering an entry into the second leg of the Triple Crown series - the Preakness Stakes in two weeks at Pimlico.
"We'll see how it cools out and then consider the Preakness," said Campbell of a decision he'll make by Tuesday.
This was certainly more than could have been expected from a colt that went off Saturday from the rail post as a 42-to-1 longshot - ahead of only four other horses in the 18-horse field. His long odds and move to the front sent the four-horse Superfecta payout to more than $41,000.
Santos followed his instructions from Pletcher and Campbell to a tee, stalking the lead pack through the first mile before making a move down the stretch. He was in third place behind front-runners Smarty
Jones and Lion Heart when he came off the final turn, only to be caught by Imperialism.
"He ran a great race," said Santos. "I thought he was going to finish third, but he couldn't. He was pulling every step of the way."
It was a tactical gem of a run that commanded respect for both the horse and jockey.
"From a strategic standpoint he was terrific," said Campbell, who had been critical of the way Santos had aggressively ridden Limehouse to a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes.
"I was extremely proud of him. I thought he fought hard and I thought that boy rode him to perfection."
Limehouse came into the Kentucky Derby with a lot of doubts about his stamina over the arduous 12-mile track. Handicappers wrote him off as more of a sprinter who had beaten average fields, even though he had won twice at Churchill Downs including a juvenile victory on last year's Derby Day.
The sloppy conditions for Saturday's post only added to the questions.
"I didn't know how he'd handle that much distance," Campbell said. "He can run farther than I knew."
Campbell's Dogwood Stable has entered seven horses in the Kentucky Derby in the past 15 years. Only Summer Squall (second in 1990) and Impeachment (third in 2000) fared better than Limehouse. Both, however, had more expected of them.
That's why Campbell said seeing Limehouse come clear at the head of the stretch ranked up there with Summer Squall winning the Preakness for him in 1990.
"It was different, but it was right there," Campbell said as he stood in the paddock area where the name of Smarty Jones was replacing Funny Cide as reigning Derby champion. "It was very intense and still is. To see that horse come with his run, it was very moving. He's such an admirable horse, an honest horse. I couldn't be more proud of him unless he'd won the Derby."
The question now is whether Limehouse can come back and win the 129th Preakness and whether Campbell will let him try. Santos has no doubts that the horse can flourish on the 13/16 -mile Pimlico track with tighter turns.
Neither does Campbell, though he'll wait a few days to declare his intentions.
"Having run this far, he's going to be much stronger the next time," Campbell said. "We'll see how bought he is and we'll have an idea of who's going."
The way Limehouse exceeded expectations Saturday, he deserves a shot. If he runs, you can bet his odds will be a lot shorter.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.