Billy Santoro smiled, smirked, shrugged.
“That’s mega big,” Santoro said.
Mega big is when you win the biggest race of your life.
Invocation rallied from last to first to capture the Appleton for the 68-year-old trainer. Santoro has done a little bit of everything in racing – owner, trainer, assistant, amateur rider, rehabber, psychiatrist, fixer upper…
Invocation came to Santoro’s Maryland barn to rehab from an injury sustained after the French-bred won an allowance hurdle at Saratoga last summer. Owner Alex Leventhal decided to keep the son of Intense Focus with Santoro. Invocation returned in a flat race at Foxfield two weeks before Far Hills. Santoro had an option at Far Hills, the Foxbrook against novices or the Appleton against handicap horses. Leventhal and Santoro conferred with jockey Sean McDermott, who won on Invocation at Saratoga, and they decided on the Appleton.
“Three weeks ago, I was trying to figure out what Jack Fisher was doing, off his rating, it made sense to go for this race. We were worried about the distance and the wet summer. He’s a horse that could win over 2 miles on quick ground,” McDermott said. “Initially I was going to sit middle of the pack and switch him off somewhere there, but when I rode the first two races, I said, ‘I’m going to put my guns on the table and sit last, whatever happens happens.’ ”
Guns blazing, Invocation answered with a determined rally to outslug the game Winner Massagot and Osmoz to win his fourth hurdle race. Originally trained by Alan King in England, Invocation hit the board in four of five starts before making his American debut in the Gladstone in 2016. He finished third for Joe Davies and Paddy Young that day and came back and won the 3-year-old race at the Colonial Cup a month later. Switched to Leslie Young, he won two of three starts last year before an injury transferred him to Santoro.
“All credit, first of all, to the horse. This is not his ground. And he’s never been 2 and 5 and Sean rode just a brilliant race,” Santoro said. “I had told Alex that I would not be surprised if he pulled up but when Sean got him covered up, and sat back there and the horse was as patient as he was, I thought this is pretty good. When he actually started to creep up, I thought this is even better.”
Invocation is one of four jumpers Santoro trains at Stymie Meadows in Monkton, Md.
“It’s not the main thrust to what I do. Alicia (Murphy) and I have been working together a bunch of years ago, we work together on each other businesses. For one under my own tutelage, this is big time,” Santoro said. “He’s such an honest horse, he truly enjoys his work, he will never ever give you less than 100 percent. On his gallops now, he’s become thoroughly professional, he’ll switch off and just lob along behind horses, I love that, because he was always rapid. He’s been quite enthusiastic in his works, but I just attribute that to his useful enthusiasm. He behaved like a real pro today.”