Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Jockey Luis Saez rides with heavy heart but not fear

Luis Saez, who will ride Itsaknockout in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on Saturday, lost his brother, Juan, also a jockey, in a racing accident in Indiana in October. Itsaknockout is second in the betting odds to Upstart.
Luis Saez, who will ride Itsaknockout in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on Saturday, lost his brother, Juan, also a jockey, in a racing accident in Indiana in October. Itsaknockout is second in the betting odds to Upstart. Coglianese photos

Sometimes, deep in the night, Luis Saez questions whether he still has the courage to keep racing horses.

His younger brother died racing horses, but Saez knows he can’t dwell on the spill that killed Juan five months ago. Fear is the jockey’s most insidious foe.

It is when Juan comes to him in his dreams that Saez is able to banish the doubt.

“He talks to me in my dreams,” Saez said. “He says he is fine, and he looks very happy. He gave me a hug and told me never to be scared.”

The next day, when Saez gets back in the saddle, he feels strong. He carries the passion of two, two brothers who always wanted to be jockeys.

Saez will be thinking of Juan on Saturday when he rides Itsaknockout in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. It’s a critical race on the road to the Kentucky Derby and another milestone in Saez’s blossoming career.

Saez had hoped to compete with Juan in the Triple Crown one day, racing side by side like they did while growing up on the family farm in Panama, racing a mile across a meadow, with one river as the starting line and another river the finish line.

“When the towns had festivals, we raced in the street, and no one could beat Juan,” Saez said. “He was going to be great.”

Now Saez feels both obligation and inspiration. He wants to fulfill the potential of his brother through his own success. That is why he dedicates each win to Juan.

Itsaknockout, the Kentucky-bred 3-year-old colt, is the Florida Derby second choice behind 8-5 favorite Upstart. He finished second to Upstart in the Fountain of Youth Stakes but was elevated to first on a steward’s disqualification. Saez loves the horse’s diligence.

“He’s getting better with each race,” Saez said. “When I ask him to run, he responds to me. He always tries, and he can run from any place on the track.”

Saez has ridden in the Kentucky Derby twice before but never on a horse this fast. Trainer Todd Pletcher handpicked Saez, figuring on compatibility.

“Horse and rider are a perfect fit,” owner Jack Wolf said. “Itsaknockout is a pretty cool cat. Luis has kept him in contention from a stalking position. They’re doing everything right, according to Todd.”

Saez, 22, is the second-leading jockey at Gulfstream behind Javier Castellano. He was previously Calder’s leading jockey three times. Juan, 17, was on course to be the nation’s top apprentice when his accident occurred in October, at Indiana Grand. Juan’s horse clipped heels with another horse. He was thrown to the track and died of head injuries. Saez broke his pelvis in a similar accident last year at Gulfstream.

A few days before the fatal fall, Saez had visited Juan in Indiana.

“He had won a stakes race, and he was so excited,” Saez said. “The night before I left, we stayed together at the hotel, and I couldn’t sleep. I think God was trying to warn me.”

When Saez got the phone call about Juan’s death, he was home in Rio de Jesus, Panama, to celebrate his father’s birthday.

“The most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do was give the news to my parents, my three sisters and my little brother,” Saez said. “We live near a village with only 25 houses. Everybody was sad.”

While he was at the farm, Saez rode through the fields alone, breaking into tears as memories flooded through him.

“We used to help my father with the cows, then we would race horses,” Saez said. “My father had to tell us to slow down.”

Saez and Juan competed as professionals only four times, at Keeneland last fall, where Saez won once, Juan won once, Saez finished second and Juan third, and, the fourth time, they finished out of the money.

Saez can’t let his brother’s accident get into his head, said Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who knew both brothers.

“We know our job is dangerous — it’s not like driving a car, because you’re dealing with an animal who has a mind of its own,” he said. “If you feel fear you shouldn’t be riding. You become passive, cautious. When you have to think clearly and react quickly in close quarters, you can’t make mistakes.

“Some jockeys never come back from tragedy, but I believe Luis has put it behind him.”

Saez has taken his youngest brother Sebastian, 16, under his wing.

“He’ll go to jockey school,” Saez said, pointing to Sebastian playing billiards in the jocks’ room. “He asks a lot of questions, and he’s eager to be as good as his brothers.”

Saez has kept Juan’s saddle and whip and wears his necklace with a small gold horse pendant.

“This is the life we chose, and I know we can die, but I’m not scared anymore,” he said. “I have my mind only on riding hard and smart and I have Juan in my heart.”

Saez misses his brother but they are together again in his dreams.

“We’re riding in the same race,” he said. “I don’t know who wins because I always wake up before the end.”

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