04/29/2009 11:00PM

Saez back on the big stage

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Gabriel Saez will get his second shot at the Derby with Friesan Fire.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Somebody sent Larry Jones a photograph early last summer. Jones had it in his truck this week. It was taken at ground level at the midpoint of Churchill Downs's clubhouse turn. In the middle of the frame is Eight Belles, galloping out after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

A stride or two after that shot was snapped, Eight Belles fractured one front ankle, then broke the other one when she shifted her weight to compensate. That we know. What we don't really know is the young man sitting on her back in that photo, Gabriel Saez, who somehow wound up at ground zero in the Eight Belles breakdown maelstrom.

The animal-rights group PETA called for Saez to be suspended. Protesters howling over the filly's death blamed Saez. He should have felt something going wrong, they said. He shouldn't have used his whip.

Saez shouldn't, their argument went, have done the very thing he came from Panama to do - try to win a horse race.

"That's what I'm here for," Saez said in an interview this week. "To ride."

Somewhat unbelievably, Saez is riding in the Kentucky Derby for the second straight year. Why unbelievably? Because according to the protocol of jockey development, Saez is not supposed to be riding in the Derby at all. At 21, he has never won a riding title, or come close. Saez bases himself at Delaware Park and Fair Grounds, not New York, California, or here in Kentucky. Saez made his U.S. debut in 2006, and his 117 victories last year didn't even rank in the top 100 nationally.

But get this: Saez has ridden in 55 graded stakes and won 20 of them, a remarkable percentage and a number far out of proportion with his win totals. And for whom did 15 of those graded wins come? Larry Jones - Saez's lifeline to major racing. It is through Jones's support that Saez has emerged from a bustle of young Latino riders trying to latch on in the United States. And Jones does not waver in his support of Saez, which is why he has made him the jockey for Friesan Fire, one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby.

"There are very few riders that I think move horses forward," Jones said. "You have a few that you run across at times. Most of the time, it's the rider that makes the least mistakes that does the best job. Every now and then, you'll find a rider that actually moves horses forward. Needless to say, they're the guys that hit the top of the list. But here's a bug boy that was doing the same thing."

Saez grew up on his grandfather's 100-acre fruit farm, near the town of Darien, Panama."I rode horses when I was little," said Saez, whose English has improved vastly in the last year. "I rode every kind of animal, bulls, whatever."

School was just killing time for Saez, and his uncle had taken him to the racetrack as a kid. When the chance to attend the Laffit Pincay riding school at the Presidente Remon racetrack in Panama City came up when Saez was 15, he jumped. For two years, from 5 a.m. till 9 a.m., Saez cleaned stalls and learned to handle racehorses. From 10-12, he had academic classes. Upon graduation, he was ready to become an apprentice rider.

"It was easy for me," Saez said.

Enter Ruben Munoz, Saez's agent. Munoz grew up in New York, part of a Puerto Rican family. His uncle Frank Mendez is a horseman; Munoz is on close terms with Angel Cordero, the Hall of Fame rider who works for Todd Pletcher. It was Munoz's connections to Latin racing that put him on a plane to Panama to watch Saez ride late in 2005.

Saez stopped riding in Panama after 4 1/2 months, when he hit 58 wins, two short of the number at which an apprentice becomes a professional. That meant that Saez could retain his apprentice standing after coming to the United States, which he did in February 2006. Saez worked horses at Palm Meadows for Pletcher and others and went to Delaware Park to ride races that spring.

"Another agent told me, 'Bug boys can't make it at Delaware,' " Munoz recalled, but Saez won 65 races that meet. More importantly, he caught the eye of Jones during morning training hours.

"Watching people gallop, you get a sense of what kind of balance they have," Jones said.

Jones was riding Mario Pino first call at the time, but when he couldn't get Pino, he started using Saez.

"When he would start riding a horse, the horse's numbers would go up," Jones said.

After Delaware, Saez and Munoz hit a crossroads. Going to New York with a young rider who had just lost his bug seemed to Munoz like suicide, but Philadelphia Park or Penn National didn't feel right, either. Jones suggested Oaklawn Park, where he would be stabled.

"You got to go where you have horses, so we went with Larry," Munoz said. "We went to freaking Hot Springs, Arkansas. We'd never been there in our life."

Saez won just eight races the winter of 2007 at Oaklawn. He followed Jones to Fair Grounds for the 2007-2008 meet and won only 15 races there. At Fair Grounds this year, Saez went just 18 for 142. These numbers just do not square with the other part of Saez's career - the part in the spotlight. Jones brought Saez to New Orleans last season to ride Proud Spell, and she followed up on a win over Indian Blessing with a victory in the 2008 Kentucky Oaks. This year, he has come out of an otherwise disappointing winter with a live Derby mount.

"It's like we skipped the part of paying our dues, and it conflicts with our day-to-day business," Munoz said.

Saez can't explain why his day-to-day business has not improved. Munoz points to a cozy insider culture at Fair Grounds, and Saez, who seemed to pop up virtually out of nowhere, remains an outsider most places. Saez appears to have few close ties with other riders. He said Ramon Dominguez helped him out at Delaware Park, but when asked who his best friend was in the jockeys' room, Saez didn't hesitate: "Nobody."

A 20-year-old raised on a Panamanian fruit farm, whose education came mainly at a jockeys' school, an immigrant plying his trade in relative obscurity at mid-level tracks. This was the person who stood over the stricken Eight Belles with millions of eyes staring in horror.

"It felt so bad," Saez said. "It sucked."

Until the gallop-out in the 2008 Derby, nothing was amiss. Eight Belles either got bumped or hit the side of the gate at the start, but Saez quickly recovered.

"I lost my stirrup at the start," Saez recalled. "I put it back, and I got my position right away. She was feeling good in the race. I saw Big Brown go outside me at the quarter pole, but I had several horses in front of me, so I couldn't go through."

Eight Belles got clear in the stretch and set off after Big Brown.

"She wasn't going to stop till she caught him," Jones said.

Catch him she could not, but Eight Belles crossed the Derby finish without incident.

"I felt something kind of go pop," Saez said. "I was trying to pull her up and 'boom.' I went flying over her."

By evening, Munoz had sent Saez off to Delaware Park.

"I put him on a plane with his jockey's clothes on," Munoz said. "My main thing was to get him out of Kentucky. We went straight to the airport. It wasn't just the media, but I knew everyone was going to bombard him. I wanted to get him out of here for the simple reason that at that time he didn't speak good English. I wanted to buffer everything that came out of his mouth."

In subsequent days, security guards were deployed to the Delaware jockeys' room. Munoz looked through the mail that came to Saez, discarding the hateful material. Saez says he has let go of whatever sadness and confusion streamed out of his first Kentucky Derby. His fiancee, Brittany Rocco, whose brother and father both are jockeys, said otherwise.

"Till this day, it bothers him," said Rocco, who has a 4-month-old son with Saez. "I didn't go to the Derby last year, and when he came home, he just had this look on his face. It was really sad. He felt horrible about what happened, and we couldn't sit for dinner without seeing it on CNN. It was tough."

The magic between Saez and Jones, however, continues to click. Friesan Fire showed talent last year at 2, but Jones thought the horse had more to give and added blinkers for an allowance race in December at Fair Grounds. A freak snowstorm moved the race back a week from its original date, and Friesan Fire was too sharp when he finally got to run, flying through a suicidal early pace before fading late, beaten into second by an inferior foe. Off came jockey Terry Thompson, on went Saez.

"Larry just said the horse ran off last time and he wanted me to take him back," Saez said.

With Saez up, Friesan Fire won the Lecomte, the Risen Star, and the Louisiana Derby, and Jones, of course, did not hesitate to stick with him in Kentucky. But Jones is months away from either an early retirement or a long break from training, and when he is gone, the question is whether Saez can maintain this strange tension between struggle and success, or whether he will have to backtrack and start paying those dues. And given the weird way his career has unfolded, it would be fitting for Saez to face that question just after winning the Kentucky Derby.