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Saez Will Be Sorely Missed

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”

– John Steinbeck from “The Winter of Our Discontent”

Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

The final ruling was simple and unsatisfying, but really here are few words that would have been completely appropriate to deliver the somber message.

“It was an unfortunate accident.”

The sentence was uttered by Stan Bowker, the Indiana Horse Racing Commission’s senior steward at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino, following an official probe into a racing accident on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 14 that claimed the life of 17-year-old apprentice jockey, Juan Saez.

For anyone who saw Saez ride or was shocked by the notion that something so tragic could befall someone so young, Bowker’s adjective is clearly mild.  Many other options seem more accurate, including: horrific, numbing, shocking, awful, horrible and dreadful.

Take your pick.

But nothing changes the horrible truth: the “unfortunate accident” – one that was nobody’s fault and purely an instance of the worst possible luck – ended the life of Saez, whom we first saw at Churchill Downs in late June when he made his U.S. riding debut at the age of 16.  The shooting star was darkened instantly in a terrible instant on the racetrack near Shelbyville, Ind.

Following his June debut, horsemen and fans quickly recognized that Saez was a prospect who possessed uncommon talent, judgment and poise.  He was a much younger horse racing alternative to Robert Redford’s aging and battered baseball phenom Roy Hobbs in “The Natural.” Saez was, like young Hobbs, a fresh face with the seeming skills of a veteran and, as a bonus, he beamed a near-constant million megawatt smile that charmed friends, fellow riders, horsemen and fans.

Less than a week after Saez’s debut at Churchill Downs, the office phone rang during a “Downs After Dark” night racing card.  On the line was Mike Battaglia, the longtime Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby announcer, veteran NBC Sports television racing analyst, and a racing veteran who has seen a good number of top riders in his time.

“Are you watching this kid?,” Battaglia said. “He’s incredible – watch how his horses run for him.”

A graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jockey School in his native Panama, Saez is the younger brother of New York-based Luis Saez, who rode 3-year-old champion, Will Take Charge to Grade I wins last year in Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare and Saratoga’s Travers.

After his five memorable trips to the winner’s circle during those waning days of the Churchill Downs Spring Meet, Saez moved on to Henderson’s Ellis Park and easily earned his first “leading rider” title.  His next Kentucky stop was Keeneland, accompanied by journeys north on Interstate 65 to compete at Indiana Grand on the Lexington track’s dark days.

The last race Saez would ride was a seemingly normal Tuesday affair.  As the horses entered the starting gate, the only unusual thing about the event was that Saez was among its participants.

He had planned to be in New York that day with his agent, retired jockey Julio Espinoza, to talk with horsemen about plans for an eventual move to join his brother in America’s largest racing market.  But their Lexington-to-New York flight on Sunday was cancelled and the New York trip was scrapped.

With an opening on his schedule, Saez traveled to the Shelbyville, Ind. track to pick up some mounts, but it still took an unusual chain-of-events to place him in the fateful eighth.  He was scheduled to end his night in the seventh race, but accepted a mount on Montezuma’s Revenge after original rider Jeremy Rose took the night off to rest due to recent injuries,  and Rose’s first back-up rider, Malcolm Franklin, became ill earlier in the racing card.

The race was anything but extraordinary until it became, in a frightening instant, unforgettable.  Montezuma’s Revenge, rallying under Saez, appeared to clip the heels of a horse in front of him – a  mishap that sent Saez tumbling from his saddle to the track.  The young star was immediately hit by trailing horses and, despite his safety equipment, suffered massive head trauma in the accident.

Saez was airlifted to an Indianapolis hospital, but died a short time later.

While having the priviliege to be a part of Kentucky racing for more than three decades, I have never seen a young rider who possessed the natural talent and apparent potential of Juan Saez.  He did things astride a horse that belied his youth and, more importantly, his horses responded to his handling.  It was difficult to imagine that he would become anything but one of the sport’s major stars, and it was a good bet that his transition from apprentice-to-“A-Lister” would happen in a hurry.

“I don’t know when, in my career, that I’ve seen somebody come along that I thought had more potential,” Hall of Fame trainer and four-time Kentucky Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas  said of Saez during a conversation with the Courier-Journal’s Jennie Rees.  “He was riding so far beyond his years already: making decisions, patience, everything you don’t see in a boy 17 years old. It’s absolutely tragic. I really thought he could be the next (Bill) Shoemaker or Pat Day.”

The passing of Juan Saez will be noted with a remembrance at Churchill Downs during Sunday’s “Opening Day” program for the 25-day Fall Meet.  It is a racing session that would likely have been another forward step in the apprentice jockey’s rapid race to stardom, though that is pure conjecture now.

The Fall Meet at Churchill Downs is always a special time.  During those days an abundance of 2-year-old Thoroughbreds race, display talent and flash potential, and they will generate buzz about their prospects for next year’s first weekend in May and the 141st renewals of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.

But do not be surprised if this Fall Meet ends up a bit more somber than most.  Pre-Derby chatter is sure to be dampened by lingering sadness over the intensely bright light that was so suddenly extinguished.

We will still have memories of his early work, shared dreams of his potential and, of course, that dazzling Juan Saez smile.  When we watched this gifted young talent on the job and the joy he took from his work, all things seemed possible.  But we know now that the story of Juan Saez will forever be a fable of what might have been.  And it will never have a happy ending.