Saez has the right stuff to take a run at Spa riding title

Jockey Luis Saez salutes the crowd at Saratoga after Essential Quality won the Jim Dandy on July 31.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Jockey Luis Saez salutes the crowd at Saratoga after Essential Quality won the Jim Dandy on July 31.

The state troopers interviewed him and many other people, including fellow jockeys.

The police and New York State Gaming Commission painstakingly reviewed hi-def video, some of it supplied by network partner NBC.

It was easy to crack jokes about a horse named Will Take Charge, after the jockey who rode him to victory in the 2013 Travers was accused of using what in racing is called a “buzzer,” a small home-made battery-powered device used by cheaters to give a little shock to a horse, that one extra boost that could be the difference between winning and losing.

Luis Saez was not afraid.

Recounting that experience on Wednesday morning, he said he wasn’t worried about getting in trouble, because he knew he didn’t cheat.

“It was a crazy thing,” the 29-year-old rider from Panama said. “I knew I was always doing my right stuff, so I didn’t really care what they did, those guys. They tried to make me look bad. It was an amazing race, and an amazing horse, and I was just glad to be riding him. And he won the Travers, the biggest, most prestigious race here, so it was great for me.”

Saez not only is in a great position to win his second Travers in a few weeks, as the regular rider for Essential Quality, but also to win his first Saratoga riding title, which the Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, have had a stranglehold on for the last six years.

That’s because, besides his innate talent, Saez keeps “doing my right stuff,” maintaining a routine that includes devotion to his family — he and wife Andrea have three daughters, Gianna (10), Genesis (8) and Bella (2) — and riding every race as if it’s the Travers, no matter what level of competition.

“He gives horses a chance,” Saez’s agent Kiaran McLaughlin said. “He’s forwardly placed often, breaks well from the gate and tries hard on every one of them, which I think is neat. He doesn’t fold up. And he rides both turf and dirt very well. He’s a pleasure to work with.”

McLaughlin was a high-profile trainer in New York for years before leaving that profession to be a jockey agent early last year.

Before he became a trainer, he had been agent until 1993 to Chris Antley, an immensely talented jockey who was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 2015, almost 15 years after he was found dead on the floor at his home in California.

Antley’s death was initially investigated as a homicide, then ultimately ruled accidental and the result of injuries from a fall caused by a drug overdose.

“He’s [Saez] a great kid, and he’s home with a wife and three kids every night,” McLaughlin said. “And I don’t have to worry if he needs to work a horse at 5:30 in the morning, he’s there.”

At the halfway point of the meet, Saez came into this week with 35 winners to 28 for Jose Ortiz and 26 for Irad, then Saez won the first race on Wednesday’s card, while the Ortiz brothers were nearly shut out before Irad won the finale on the card.

It isn’t just quantity, but quality. And it isn’t just Essential Quality.

Besides that colt’s win in the Grade II Jim Dandy, Saez has won four other graded stakes and two that are ungraded.

His graded stakes winners include Pretty Birdie in the Grade II Schuylerville on opening day; the Grade III Forbidden Apple with Rinaldi, who is expected to run in the Grade I Fourstardave this weekend; the Grade II Bowling Green with Cross Border; and the Grade I Test last weekend with Bella Sofia.

Saez also didn’t miss by much when Summer Romance was a close second to stablemate Althiqa in the Grade I Diana.

His six stakes winners are managed by six different trainers, so it’s not like he’s relying on one hot barn as a first-call rider.

“Exceeding [expectations], for sure,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a tough place, great jockey colony here, and we’re very blessed to be where we are today. The Ortiz brothers are always going to push you. But everything’s gone so well. Maybe off-the-turfs have helped us, and staying on the turf when they thought they might come off, just everything’s gone right. So we’re doing great and don’t take it for granted. So we hope we can keep it going.

“We’ve been doing it for a year. I feel like the graded stakes have been great. Whenever we ship somewhere, we got lucky to win. He’s a top rider, and I feel fortunate to be his agent. He’s happy to ride for anybody. We, obviously, appreciate everybody’s support on that front.”

“I feel grateful to be here and to enjoy this magnificent Spa here at Saratoga,” Saez said. “It’s a tough spot, but thank God we’ve been doing great. You’re riding here with the best jockeys, and every race is pretty tough, but the horses have been running great.”

Will Take Charge’s Travers wasn’t Saez’s first brush with controversy.

He finished first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby on Maximum Security, but was disqualified for interference coming off the second turn, for which Saez drew a 15-day suspension.

“It was not on purpose,” he said. “My thing was ride the horse and win the race, but stuff happens in the races. Unfortunately, we were in that position there. But my plan is to come back and win the race again. That’s our next step, go back and win the Derby. Everybody wants to win that race. It’s not easy, but I have a feeling, maybe, one day.”

In the meantime, he has a victory in the $12 million Dubai World Cup under his belt now, on Mystic Guide in March, followed by his first win (that counted) in a Triple Crown race, when Essential Quality rebounded from a loss in the Derby to win the Belmont Stakes on June 5.

Saez’s devotion to family goes back to his days on the cattle farm run by his parents in Panama, where they didn’t have electricity and the Saez boys raced horses in the road.

Luis eventually learned the craft at the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey Training Academy and made the leap to the U.S. at Calder in southern California, despite the fact that he spoke no English.

“Where I came from was pretty difficult,” he said. “My dad and my mom, where they are is pretty tough. I rode on the farm. We don’t have anything, no lights, no TV, nothing. But the place where we grew up, there were a lot of animals, so we love the animals, and I really love the horses, the cows, everything.

“I remember I used to hear the races by the radio, and they sounded pretty wonderful. I wanted to be there, and that was my dream the first time I was here. When I first came, I didn’t know anything. I get there, and I remember my old agent took me to a little school, and I started to learn [English] a little bit. It was hard. Over there [Panama], nobody speaks English. My wife helped me a lot. She speaks perfect English, and people at the track helped me.”

Learning the language was essential to any progress Saez made in the U.S., and he gradually moved his way up through Gulfstream Park before gaining a foothold in New York.

That also allowed him to express in English how his Belmont win carried extra meaning than simply being his breakthrough in a Triple Crown race.

Luis’ brother Juan, a 17-year-old apprentice jockey, died in a riding accident at Indiana Grand in 2014 when his horse clipped heels with another.

It was only natural for Luis to dedicate Essential Quality’s victory to his younger brother.

“It was something very special,” Saez said. “I remember when we first started here, and I used to be with my brother, he always told me, like, ‘Man, what a wonderful race to win’ . . . Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Derby, big races. And they remind me all the time, so that’s why I wanted to dedicate that race to him. It was pretty tough. He was my best friend. We used to be together all the time, so it was pretty hard.

“My family is my everything.”

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