SARATOGA SPRINGS — Rarely will you find a jockey so thrilled to finish fourth in a race. Then fifth in the next one.
Luis Saez had his just-happy-to-be-here moment in the first race at Saratoga Race Course on Friday, riding Vitanza to a fourth in a maiden claiming race in front of no fans.
He wasn’t complaining.
Saez will be pining for a cross-country trip on Saturday that won’t happen, but is grateful to be back in the saddle after two weeks of self-quarantine because of a positive COVID-19 test.
He’s the second high-profile New York-based jockey to test positive — Hall of Famer Javier Castellano had to self-quarantine for two weeks spanning the end of March and the beginning of April.
Saez tested negative twice during his two weeks off and said he has been asymptomatic all along, so Friday was a welcome return to his job.
“Oh, so happy. Couldn’t wait to be here, you know?” he said after finishing fifth on Movie Score in the second. “We got through this, and we’re healthy.
“He [Castellano] was one of the first people to call me. He said, ‘Don’t worry,’ and it was like that. I stayed at home, and I didn’t watch too much news, too, because they make you think about too much. I tried to stay away from all that stuff.”
Saez was among a group of jockeys who traveled around the country for rides earlier this month and wound up in quarantine.
In a five-day span, Saez was at Belmont Park, Los Alamitos in southern California, Indiana Grand and Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, where a test he took on July 9 came back positive the next day. He found out about the positive after the second race on the July 10 card, took off the rest of his mounts and has been inactive until Friday.
“I was at my house doing a lot of exercise,” Saez said. “I was running a lot, and I’m here now, so I’m so glad to be here.
“I never felt sick. It was tough, but everything is for a reason, so we’re giving thanks to God to be here. I was supposed to ride a couple horses first week, but we’re OK. We’re OK, it’s more important that we’re here now and we’re safe.”
Saez is the regular rider on Maximum Security, the 2019 3-year-old male champion who was disqualified from first place in the Kentucky Derby.
He was supposed to have ridden him in the Grade II San Diego at Del Mar last Saturday, but Saez was not only in quarantine, but the New York Racing Association has established a jockey “bubble” that makes travel prohibitive. Anyone who has ridden at another track since opening day is barred from the grounds, as are riders in the Saratoga colony who leave to ride somewhere else.
Saez has too much business at Saratoga to be able to afford leaving just to ride Maximum Security in one race and then not be allowed back.
Then Del Mar canceled its weekend cards last week because of a spate of COVID positives in its jockey colony. The San Diego has been re-scheduled for Saturday, and Maximum Security will be ridden by Abel Cedillo.
“It’s so disappointing,” Saez said. “I was sad, because I’ve been riding him all the time. We understand now we’ve been through this and hope everything is over pretty soon.
“We don’t want to take the virus and give it to somebody. So I think it’s [travel ban] OK. I was supposed to be riding [Maximum Security] tomorrow, but I can’t because I can’t come back.”
Despite losing two weeks of business, Saez is still fifth in purse earnings and second in victories among riders in North America. He also has a live shot in the Grade II Bernard Baruch on Sunday, with Halladay.
And he’s expected to have an interesting mount for the Travers on Aug. 8, the Bob Baffert-trained Uncle Buck, who won the Los Alamitos Derby on July 4 with Saez in the saddle.
“I am excited for that,” Saez said. “Nice horse. Last time he beat them with ease.”