LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It’s been 11 years since Eight Belles died on the racetrack, but for her jockey, it may seem even longer.
Gabriel Saez, who disappeared from the public consciousness almost as soon as the Eight Belles controversy exploded in the aftermath of the filly’s tragic death following the 2008 Kentucky Derby, has traveled his own difficult path in finally returning to the Derby limelight.
Saez has the mount aboard By My Standards in the 145th Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs, marking just his second Derby ride (following Friesan Fire, 18th in 2009) since becoming a poster boy for vitriol from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Saez was mired in what he termed “personal problems,” including a divorce, in the years that followed the Eight Belles incident, and it has only been through perseverance and good fortune that he is back in the Derby.
“I’ve been working hard, trying to survive,” he said. “My business kind of went down for a while, and I’ve been trying to hang in there. The ups and downs, that’s how a career is.”
A 31-year-old native of Panama, Saez was an early sensation when he started his riding career in the U.S. in 2006 at age 18. Possessed with great natural ability, he soon ingratiated himself with top outfits on the East Coast, with his first major victory coming in the 2008 Kentucky Oaks with Proud Spell for his main benefactor, trainer Larry Jones.
The day afterward, on May 3, 2008, Saez was aboard Eight Belles – his first Kentucky Derby mount – when she crossed under the wire second in the Derby to Big Brown, then broke down in both front ankles when galloping out around the clubhouse turn, forcing veterinarians to euthanize her. Saez soon became the object of severe criticism from certain factions, including PETA, who blamed him for excessive whipping and other perceived transgressions in the tragedy.
“I remember getting letters in the jocks’ room, and my [former] agent wouldn’t let me read the bad ones because people were so mean,” Saez said this week. “He’d only show me the good ones. The bad ones, he got rid of them. [Losing Eight Belles] was a sad situation, for me and everyone else, and people were calling me names.”
Jones was among those who fiercely defended Saez, saying the jockey had nothing to do with her death.
“This kid made every move the right move,” Jones told the Associated Press days afterward.
In the years that followed, Saez lost favor with some stables. Some of it was attributable to normal cycles that affect most riders – win and they want you, lose and they don’t – but Saez also now mostly blames himself for behavior and habits that were less than ideal.
“I learned a lot about myself,” he said. “I mean, I learned a lot.”
His worst year since his arrival in this country was in 2012, when he had 59 wins and $1.7 million in mount earnings, well shy of career highs of 137 wins (2010) and $6 million in earnings (2008). Since then, he’s been pretty steady, if not spectacular, as his mounts have averaged nearly $3.3 million annually for the five-year period spanning 2014-18. His biggest break came over the winter when he hooked up with owner Chester Thomas and trainer Bret Calhoun with By My Standards, a colt Saez has ridden in all five career starts, including his March 23 triumph in the Louisiana Derby.
“Gabriel has done a lot of work with the horse and knows him very well,” said Calhoun. “Chester and I are loyal people. We could’ve gone with a more high-profile rider, but Gabriel is unflappable and very good in high-pressure situations. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”
Saez, who is remarried and has two young children, knows all too well that the racing gods are smiling down on him.
“I feel very blessed to be here,” he said. “I’m still doing what I love the most, riding horses. What can I say, this is the Kentucky Derby. I am very happy.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
Visit DRF.com for additional news, notes, wagering information, and more.