By Art Wilson, Los Angeles Daily News
I never met Juan Saez. Chances are good you never met him, either. It’s too bad too, because from all I’ve read about the 17-year-old native of Panama City the past 48 hours, we would have liked him. He was a good kid who had the ability to become a great jockey.
We’ll never know how good he would have been, though, after he was killed in a terrible spill at Indiana Grand on Tuesday night. His horse, Montezuma Express, clipped heels with the horse in front of him during the eighth race and Saez was tossed to the ground. He later died at the hospital because of severe head injuries.
It was one of those frightening instances we witness far too often at the race track, the one where we fear a jockey has been seriously injured, only to hear later that everyone involved had escaped unscathed. This time, the news hit us like a ton of bricks. This time, one of the riders was not spared the fate we feared.
All too often when we lose a race, we want to blame someone. It’s not you or me who made the wrong bet, it’s the rider who moved too quickly or chose the wrong route at the quarter pole that cost us the race. Oftentimes we forget these men and women are trying to navigate through tight holes while riding 1,200-pound animals. Think it’s that easy? Yeah, many of ’em make good money, but would you put your life on the line six or seven times a day for some extra cash?
Laffit Pincay Jr., the best jockey of my lifetime, didn’t hear about Saez’s death until Wednesday. He, like everyone else, was shocked to hear the news that the apprentice rider had become the first North American jockey to be killed since 2012.
Pincay, North America’s second all-time winningest jockey behind Russell Baze, didn’t know Saez but had heard only good things about the young rider. Saez was a graduate of the jockey school in Panama that bears Pincay’s name.
“I know that he was a very promising jockey,” Pincay said. “It’s just devastating news. It’s really a tragedy because this kid was supposed to be a champion rider. From what I hear, he could really ride and was a nice kid.
“I talked to his agent (Wednesday) and he was really down. He said that this kid reminded him a lot of me. It’s just sad, a terrible accident.”
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas thought Saez had the ability to become the next Bill Shoemaker or Pat Day. Yes, he was that good. He hadn’t cracked the big time yet like his older brother, Luis, but it wasn’t going to be long before he was riding at the Santa Anita Parks, Saratogas and Del Mars of the racing world.
But forget about his talent on the track. This was a young man who had his entire future taken away while doing something he loved. He wasn’t even supposed to ride Montezuma Express, winding up on the horse only after original jockey Jeremy Rose didn’t show up and his first replacement, Malcolm Franklin, took off the late races because he was sick.
Pincay knows all about fate. He remembers the time a 23-year-old rider, J.C. Gonzalez, was killed in an accident on opening day at Fairplex Park in 1999 aboard a horse named Wolfhunt, who Pincay had ridden the race before at Del Mar.
“It could have happened to me,” Pincay said.
Saez’s agent, Julio Espinoza, was like a father to the jockey. Saez lived with Espinoza and his family in Louisville and the two often rode to the track together.
“I’ve been high on him as a young rider forever,” Espinoza, told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “But the kind of kid he was is the main thing. A really good kid. He’d smile all the time. We called him Smiley, he was so happy all the time. He died doing what he loved to do. His dream was to win the Derby, and he was well on his way.”
Pincay feels the pain because when you’re a jockey, you’re part of a tight fraternity. It’s a brotherhood. These underappreciated athletes are as competitive as all heck when they’re on the track, but away from the races many are close friends and hang with each other during their idle time.
“In the jocks’ room we have little fights sometimes, we argue and we get mad at each other, but we love each other too,” Pincay said. “We’re there everyday, we have fun sometimes and we joke around. We try to have a good time, but it’s also a very tough, competitive business.”
There’s a message here — next time you want to boo a rider or hurl insults at him or her, consider how they’re putting their lives on the line for our entertainment. All too often they’re criticized and heckled by fans while waking back to the jocks’ room after maybe finishing off the board with the odds-on favorite.
“Sometimes we’re just lucky,” Pincay said. “Sometimes we have spills out there and nothing happens, the spill is not that bad. You end up breaking a bone or doing something bad to yourself. You never know when it’s going to be your lucky day. We don’t think about it, but it’s in the back of our mind.”
It should be in the forefront of ours.
Follow Art Wilson on Twitter at @Sham73