By Dave Hyde, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
The sadness comes to Luis Saez mostly at night. When he mounts his horses in the day, he feels inspired wearing his brother’s necklace. When he sits in the starting gate, he feels his brother in the saddle with him.
But at night, in his sleep, when his mind can unfurl, that’s when his brother approaches him in dreams. They’re at their family’s farm in Panama. They’re talking at a race track.
“The other night, I saw him standing there in front of me, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m fine,’ ” Saez said. “That made me he feel better. He said, ‘Tell everyone I’m OK.’ ”
This is a story about success and tragedy and how they can be brothers of the same idea. Especially for the Saez brothers. There’s Luis, 22, a rising star in horse racing, Gulfstream Park’s second leading jockey this winter behind Javier Castellano, the reigning king of the sport.
There also was Juan, 17, who was on his way to being the country’s top apprentice jockey – the sport’s rookie of the year – when during an October race in Indiana, his horse clipped heels with another horse. He was thrown from the horse. He never got up.
A few hours before, they had talked on the phone. A week before, they raced together at Keeneland’s iconic track in Kentucky, each winning a race. But the night of Juan’s accident, Luis was in Panama, surprising their father on his birthday, when his cell phone rang.
“I had to tell my mother and my father,” he said. “That was one of the [most difficult] things I’ve done.”
What makes a family? Is it just blood? Or something thicker? Luis and Juan grew up on a farm four hours from Panama City, riding their father’s three horses so much, and so fast, that their father grew upset at times. They weren’t race horses, after all
“Slow down,” he’d say.
There were no cars or TV. No money. But that didn’t matter. It was as a youth, while listening to the radio play-by-play of a horse race in Panama City, Luis got the idea of becoming a jockey. Ride horses for a living? Become famous?
At 14, he went to the Laffit Pincay Jockey School in Panama. At 16, he was racing there when an agent, watching on TV from Gulfstream, noticed his talent and brought him to South Florida.
“This was my dream, coming here, riding horses,” he said.
And so he began climbing the ladder of success. He became Calder’s top jockey three times. The better trainers began recruiting him. Then the best ones. He’s ridden in the Kentucky Derby the past two years and won Saratoga’s big race, The Travers Stakes.
Amid his rise, he brought Juan to America, too. Big brother wanted to nourish his younger brother’s dream. Help him. Encourage him in the new land. His first year, Juan just worked out horses in mornings and learned.
“He then started racing, and he was great at it,” he said. “I felt so happy, because it was all looking good for [both of us]. I was doing good. He was doing good. We were doing what we wanted.”
Saez drops his head. “He was as good a brother as you could have.”
It is late on Wednesday afternoon in the jockey’s room at Gulfstream, and Saez has had a particularly good day. He won three straight straight races, finished second in another and third third on a longshot.
It has been more than three months since his brother died. The first time he had to race after the accident was a particularly difficult race he said.
“Just getting on the horse, I was thinking of him,” he said.
Danger is a word used too much in sports. But it’s the life of a jockey. Saez had his pelvis broken at Gulfstream last season when horses clipped heels, he was thrown off the mount and stepped on by speeding horse.
It’s the similar accident that took his brother, but with a different ending. And the only lesson learned is how quickly it can go and, when it does, how much you miss them. Luis Saez’s dreams remind him of that.