Gil Laiz is most comfortable in the saddle. It’s a good thing. The 60-year-old exercise rider breezed 76 2-year-olds during the recent under tack preview ahead of Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s spring sale April 21-24.
A lifelong horseman, Laiz has been riding since he entered jockey school in his native Puerto Rico at age 15. Laiz was a jockey at the racetrack from the mid-1970s, riding mostly in and around Maryland and New Jersey before relocating to Florida to compete in South Florida and at Tampa Bay Downs.
According to Equibase statistics, Laiz had his best season by wins in 1978 when he piloted the winners of 123 races from 765 starts.
Laiz stopped riding competitively three years ago and today gallops horses primarily for Nick and Jacqui de Meric’s de Meric Sales and for Lynn and Chris Boutte, though he also freelances for others.
“He’s a dynamo,” Nick de Meric said. “He’s probably the fittest man in Florida. He can go toe to toe with any teenager. He’s a spectacular athlete and a first-class human being.”
“I always want to do my best to make the horses look good,” Laiz said this week from the OBS sale. “I want them to finish strong and gallop out good.”
A strong work ethic and competitive nature keep Laiz busy in his chosen profession. At one point, Laiz rode 35-40 head a day, but he has slowed down some and today gets on 15-20 head a day in Ocala, where he lives on 20 acres with wife, Mildred.
Not content with simply encouraging a horse to breeze fast, Laiz still studies video, much like athletes in other sports, to identify areas where he can improve.
“I watch videos of the breeze shows to catch my mistakes,” Laiz said. “Sometimes I will break a little early or a little late with a horse. That can cost you ticks off the clock, and mistakes don’t help horses finish strong.”
Boutte elaborated on the importance of the rider’s role in a breeze show performance. “If a rider breaks too close to the pole, sometimes they find themselves scrambling,” she said. “If they break too early a horse can get tired in those last jumps and that can really hurt their video. The goal is to always finish strong.”
For Laiz, who says he has a clock in his head, there’s nothing like being on a horse with promise.
“When I’m flying down the track, and the horse is taking me for a ride, I know I’m on a good one,” Laiz related. “I know it’s a good one when I don’t have to ask, and I only hear wind. Sometimes I can tell how fast we’re going by the wind.
“Every horse is different,” he added, “but maybe one or two a year can still give me chills and goose bumps.”
Lynn Boutte has worked with Laiz for 26 years, and she believes there are few better at his craft. Laiz piloted the Distorted Humor colt that the Bouttes sold to Sheikh Mohammed for $1.2 million at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Florida sale.
“When I’m on the pony next to him on the track, he will say to me within a couple of strides, ‘Lynn, what do you have me on here? This is a nice horse.’ It also works the other way when he doesn’t like one. ‘What kind of horse do you have me on?’ he’ll ask me. Of course, it’s all in how he says it.
“He’s great,” Boutte added. “He feels them right away. He’s a big fabric of our team, and he’s more than that, actually. He’s like family.”
Laiz broke his femur last year and returned to galloping horses just two months later. Fear never enters his mind. “You can’t be afraid,” he says, even though anything could happen getting on a youngster for the first time at a breeze show.
“I feel like I can read their minds,” Laiz said of the young horses he pilots. “Within a couple of steps I know what I have.”
As far as how long he will continue riding, Laiz says, “I don’t know how to quit. I love it too much. I will ride until the man upstairs tells me to stop. I love my job.
“This (riding) is all I ever wanted to do,” he added. “I think I have ridden for just about everyone here in Ocala at some point. I’m thankful for the support of so many people in Ocala. They have taken care of me for so long. I’m very appreciative.”
Safe to say, the feeling is mutual.