10/15/2014 9:27AM

Apprentice Saez, 17, dies of head trauma

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Apprentice jockey Juan Saez, 17, died Tuesday night after a spill at Indiana Grand.

Seventeen-year-old apprentice rider Juan Saez died Tuesday night from severe head trauma following a spill at Indiana Grand in suburban Indianapolis, stunning those who had known him as a rising star since he began his career in June.

Saez lingered on life support for several hours at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis after being airlifted there from Indiana Grand, according to information supplied Wednesday morning by his agent, Julio Espinoza. The time of death was 10:52 p.m. Eastern.

Espinoza initially said Saez’s mother, father, and two brothers were en route to the United States from Panama to make funeral arrangements, but Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, said Wednesday the family was staying home and the body will be shipped to them.

Espinoza said Luis Saez, the standout jockey based in New York, had flown Monday to the family home in Panama to surprise their father for his birthday Tuesday.

“It’s all very, very sad,” said Espinoza.

The spill occurred in the eighth race when Saez fell on the far turn after his mount, Montezuma Express, appeared to clip the heels of a tiring horse in front of him, Paddy’s Note. Saez crashed to the ground, as did his mount, and the jockey may have been struck by trailing horses.

Ricardo Santana Jr., aboard Masaru, fell from his mount in a chain reaction when trying to avoid the fallen horse and rider. Masaru had to be euthanized, but Montezuma Express returned to his stable.

Saez, a native of Panama and a graduate of the famed Laffit Pincay Jr. jockey training academy, had known little but success since starting his American riding career in June at Churchill Downs. He was easily the leading jockey at the 29-day summer meet at Ellis Park and had ridden 89 winners for mount earnings of more than $2 million in his nascent career.

"Juan Saez possessed an immense gift for riding horses, and there is no telling how bright his future as a jockey would have been," Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said in a statement.

“Juan was such a talented and sweet kid, with a promising future,” said jockey John Velazquez, chairman of the Jockeys' Guild. “It is like losing a member of the family."

Since coming to the United States, Saez had lived in the Louisville, Ky., home owned by Espinoza and his wife.

“We did everything together – work, eat, run, everything,” said Espinoza. “He was just a great, great kid, aside from being the best young rider around.”

In a separate and seemingly unrelated incident in the same race Tuesday night, one of the leaders, Platitude, broke down, unseating Marcelino Pedroza Jr., less than 10 seconds after the Saez incident. That horse also was euthanized.

According to a press release issued by Indiana Grand, Santana and Pedroza escaped serious injury.

Track officials decided to cancel what would have been the ninth and final race Tuesday in the aftermath of the spills. The full card Wednesday also was canceled.

According to the Jockeys’ Guild, Saez is the 153rd jockey since 1940 to be killed in a race in North America. He is the first to lose his life since Jorge Herrera died in July 2012 at Pleasanton in Northern California.

– additional reporting by Byron King