05/13/2008 11:00PM

Shaken, young star retains his focus

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Barbara D. Livingston
Gabriel Saez

STANTON, Del. - The same calm demeanor that 20-year-old Gabriel Saez displays on horseback has served him well during the 10 days since he rode the ill-fated Eight Belles to a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Saez became embroiled in a firestorm of controversy after Eight Belles broke both of her front ankles while galloping out after the finish of the May 3 Kentucky Derby. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals called for an investigation of Saez - claiming he overused his whip - and wanted him suspended. Most, if not all, people in the racing industry, however, have absolved Saez of any wrongdoing and that includes Larry Jones, the trainer of Eight Belles.

"I don't really pay too much attention to it,'' Saez said between races Tuesday at Delaware Park, where he won two races. "Those kind of people don't know much about racing. I'm doing my job.''

"Gabriel did not make any mistakes,'' said Jones, who noted that while other jockeys in the Derby galloped out their horses over previously made hoof prints, "Gabriel gets her out in a perfectly manicured part of the track. This kid did everything he's supposed to do.''

On May 2, Saez won the Kentucky Oaks aboard the Jones-trained Proud Spell. The next day, in the Derby, he said he never felt Eight Belles take a misstep. By the time "I felt something,'' Saez said, "I was on the ground. I don't like talking about it; it's pretty upsetting.''

As Saez hustled to leave Churchill Downs that night, he had no idea what lay in store for him. Saez was trying to make it back to Delaware so that he could ride two horses Sunday for former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones - the owner of Proud Spell. His flight was delayed and he was forced to spend the night at a Charlotte, N.C., hotel because he missed his connection.

Saez said that night he tried to watch the Derby replay a couple of times on the computer, but the image that kept on being shown was the filly on the track, so he turned it off.

According to Saez's agent, Ruben Munoz, Saez was heckled by a few fans when he rode at Delaware the day after the Derby. Munoz, who majored in journalism at Syracuse University, arranged with Delaware Park for security to escort Saez to and from the jocks' room for two days.

Munoz helped shield Saez from the media for several days after the Derby. That enabled Saez the chance to get back to the business of riding horses. He has ridden 5 winners from 18 mounts since Saturday.

"One thing that he told me was I don't want to be known for this,'' Munoz said. "Being 20 years old really helps because you can stuff things and put them away and pretty much let them go. I think he has put it behind him for the simple reason that he hasn't mentioned it anymore. No. 2, his performance has been awesome. Every day he's won a race. That's where he's the most comfortable, on a horse.''

Munoz, 43, was alerted to Saez by jockey Cornelio Velasquez. Saez was born in Darien, Panama and his uncle, Oscar Chavez, is a jockey in Singapore. Saez attended the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School for two years. Upon graduation, Saez rode 58 winners in a four-month span at Presidente Remon, a track in Panama.

Saez sustained a dislocated shoulder toward the end of his stint in Panama, which delayed his start in the United States. Munoz, who has a close friendship with Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., brought Saez to south Florida in early 2006 and Saez was able to get on horses for trainer Todd Pletcher in the morning. Saez also got to work with Cordero.

"He's got good hands, a lot of patience, he's very cool,'' Cordero said. "If you ask me who's going to be the next big star in racing I'd say it's going to be him.''

Larry Jones has been Saez's biggest booster. He began using Saez in 2006 at Delaware and brought him to Oaklawn Park in 2007 and Fair Grounds in 2008. Saez almost short-circuited his opportunity for Jones when he tested positive for marijuana in 2007 and was suspended by Oaklawn officials for two months, according to Munoz.

But Jones gave Saez another chance and is glad he did. Jones said he was amazed at the poise Saez displayed, especially when he would ship out of town to such places as Colonial Downs, Saratoga, or Monmouth Park for Breeders' Cup Day.

"Nothing shakes this kid up,'' Jones said. "When he comes out and shakes hands with you, he has so much confidence it's unreal, and it's passed on to the horses.''

Saez, who does not have a mount in the Preakness, will be at Pimlico on Friday and Saturday to ride in a few of the other big stakes races. He could hear some hecklers there, but he plans on tuning them out.

"I'm going to do my job, keep it relaxed, and ride my horses and try to win the races,'' Saez said. "That's it.''