Forever Young - By Sean Clancy

(Originally published in the March 6, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

It’s a young man’s game.

To ride jump races is to live by dog years—one equals seven. When, or if, a jump jockey reaches 30, he’s on the other side; the very thing that made him feel young and indestructible has now made him feel old and vulnerable. He has seen death.

At the end of the 2009 steeplechase season, Billy Santoro retired, feeling like a very young boy and a very old man all at the same time. Funny how that works; most jump jockeys put off real life, ride fearlessly, then feel their nerve and verve slipping and eventually need to move on.

Santoro is different. He started at 56, put aside real life, rode carefree for four years, and now must end the honeymoon. See, he’s 60; by law, too old to ride jump races. For an all-too brief stint, Santoro was a kid again. While his professional brethren counted their days, let moments slip past, the old amateur counted his blessings, stealing moments before it was too late.

Over the years Santoro dabbled in steeplechasing; riding a few races as a young man and training a few horses, but it wasn’t until four years ago, when his girlfriend, Alicia Murphy, came home from a bad weekend at the races complaining about jockeys, that Santoro did what he had always wanted to do. Murphy thought he was crazy, but they share the same thoughts on risk and reward; life is to be lived, not preserved. Murphy climbs mountains for fun; she doesn’t paint them for posterity. Santoro began worrying about saving ground and finding strides at an age when most men are worried about bad knees and enlarged prostates.

Most told him he was crazy; some said rock on and do it—live a little. He won races, including the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and Grand National timber stakes. By his own accounting, he’s the oldest jockey to win a stakes over jumps in this country, and probably will be for a long time. In all, he won nine NSA races and a bunch of non-sanctioned point-to-point races. But it was never about the numbers.

The rule makes sense, or did, before Santoro came along. It’s a shame; he’s better than most 20-year-olds. He could protest it, would probably win in court, but he’s too seasoned, too respectful, too battle tested—too old for that. He knows it’s over: He’s had his fun and his moment in the time capsule. Now it’s time to leave the park and head home in the fading light. The dinner bell has rung.

The rule exists. There’s no mistaking the vagaries of old age. A man can only control how he handles the fact of the matter.

“There are things I came to accept about myself that made this a good time to call it off, physical and mental,” Santoro said. “I respect the horse enough to know it (steeplechasing) requires every bit as much professionalism, ability, sharpness, and keenness in a rider as (it does in) a horse. There came a point I felt like I was losing an edge, mentally.”

A young man fights fallibility. An old man makes it his friend.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s time to get on with life, you’re 33,’ ” Santoro said. “Stopping at 60 years of age is making me think of other things that are slowing down. It’s coming from 60 miles an hour to 30 miles an hour all of a sudden. I’ve never run up against that before.”

Santoro is grateful for the last four years; grateful for the chance and grateful that he was old enough to appreciate the gift he was given. A young man thinks he’s a gift to the sport, thinks the sport owes him. An old man realizes the sport is a gift to him, that he owes the sport.

Sometimes sport is simply a metaphor for life. Santoro relished the fun and fulfillment after a lifetime of expectation. He had finally gotten around to something he felt like he should have done earlier in life.
Most don’t get second chances.

“I have always loved the sport, always, always. It was just something I should have done,” Santoro said. “Whether it’s age perspective or my personality, I still see the luster, the romance in the sport, but now it’s tempered with the reality of it, in a good way. The romance has to be born of something real, and I’m glad I got to do it. It was the riders, the young people in the jocks’ tent, with no preference to age or performance. I came to be accepted as one of them. I really enjoyed being one of the…one of the few.”

Sean Clancy won the 2009 Eclipse Award in the news/commentary division.

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