OPINION: Saez Needs, Deserves Time Off After Kentucky Derby Disqualification; Lots of Time Off

(Rider Luis Saez was given a 15-day suspension by the Stewards on Monday for his ride on Maximum Security in the 145th Kentucky Derby, which resulted in the first disqualification in the history of the storied race / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)

It never ceases to amaze me, any more. How quickly some skeptics jump to judgment and criticism. How fast some self-annointed “experts” find fault and cast blame. How rapidly some people — in any profession — claim to have both the experience and the insight to judge others.

Such was the case on Monday.

Only seconds after the Kentucky Racing Commission announced that it had issued its’ ruling, and would be suspending jockey Luis Saez for 15 riding days for his involvement in the highly controversial, and nearly catastrophic incident in the 145th edition of the Kentucky Derby, the locust descended.

There was former trainer and TVG host Nick J. Hines, aka Sarge, who went on Twitter and called the penalty “preposterous,” and later, “egregious.”

There was Gary Stevens, whom I truly think may be one of the best riders in the history of the sport, but whom I disagree mightily with on this subject matter. He didn’t take long to get a leg up in this continuing debate. When someone wrote that Saez’ ride on Maximum Security was “despicable,” Stevens responded with: “Obviously you never rode a horse at 40 mph. Tough to correct in :04 seconds. Cmon man. Wake op (up). Don’t call that kid despicable on my twitter page.”

There was John Clay — columnist for the “Lexington Herald-Leader,” and who covers horse racing, oh, about a week every year or so — who wrote: “I’m on record as believing the stewards made the right decision on Derby day, but coming down so hard on Saez doesn’t seem quite fair given the circumstances involved.”

There was even John G. Dooley, the track announcer at the Fair Grounds, which is, ironically enough, owned by Churchill Downs. He wrote: “Definitely seems a harsh ruling to give Luis Saez 15 days suspension for the historic DQ on Maximum Security.”

All this sampling, mind you, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Dip your boot toe into social media pool (cesspool?) just an inch or two, and you will be inundated with comments, ideas, suggestions, ridicule and obnoxiousness.

The vast majority of the comments that I saw and read ridiculed the Kentucky Racing Commission and its’ ruling. The “experts” and the “fans” alike thought that Saez was “fouled,” by the 15-day suspension. The critics are calling for justice, peace and the “American Dream.”

Opinion is one thing, folks. It’s what makes the world go round. Especially in the horse racing business. Ever thought what may happen to the pari-mutuel pools if we all agreed on and bet the same horse? In every race?

But, before we delve into my opinion and thoughts, I will just warn you. And, Mr. Saez. It’s a good damn thing that I wasn’t sitting on that judiciary body that handed out the penalty phase for his involvement in what nearly became the “Derby Day Massacre.”

It would have been a day of reckoning.

I think the guy rode recklessly, dangerously, and put both horses and riders in serious jeopardy of bodily injury, and possibly, worse.

I think the guy — whether intentionally, or not (which truthfully does not matter) — allowed his mount to swerve completely out of control and into the paths of others, creating a moment of both panic and mayhem. How other riders and horses managed to stay upright and afoot is truthfully an Act of God, and a tribute to the athleticism of the other horses and rides involved.

I think the guy nearly wiped out 25% of the entire Kentucky Derby field, and he certainly compromised those riders and horses and completely eliminated any chance they had to win the race. Survival became the immediate concern.

I think the guy earned and now deserves a precedent setting penalty.

He earned it.

He deserves it.

He should accept it.

And, he should change. For his own sake. For this sport’s sake.

What Mr. Saez needs is a trip to the wood shed, as my grand father used to call it. Where he will get his “comings.” Where he should meet his penalty.

A penalty that sends a very strong message to Mr. Saez. A penalty that clearly defines that the sport and the industry is not going to tolerate this kind of riding misconduct and dangerous behavior — in any race, at any time. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not any time.

The situation that occurred in the final turn of the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby can not ever be tolerated, condoned, pacified, forgiven or forgotten. Before the world, one horse and one rider nearly created a situation that PETA would have paid zillions for; and the racing public and fan would have paid zillions to avoid — a pileup of both horses and riders.

A penalty that sends a very strong edict to Mr. Saez. A penalty that states that the sport has had enough of these kind of riding tactics and antics — from him, personally, and others, collectively. And, that the industry — as a whole — will not condone, or accept any more from a consistent repeat offender.

And, a penalty that sends a very strong, resounding, deaf-defying siren to all riders, in every jurisdiction. A penalty that catches the attention, and changes the behavior. Immediately. Forever. This is not a “Win At All Cost” sport. Cannot be. Too much is at risk. Too much is at stake.

Forget the crazy, fool-hearty, whimsical, mind-boggling ban on crops that Belinda Stronach wanted to instal at Santa Anita, as some kind of cure-all to the astronomical number of casualties that occurred at that track this year.

Of course, the use of the riding crop had nothing to do with those catastrophic injuries. And, the issue should have never been raised. Imagine the riders dealing with the aftermath of Saez and his mount if they had not had every tool at this disposal on Derby Day?

Instead, focus on a systematic approach that can help put an end to “road rage” riders, who repeatedly find themselves in violation of the very rules of racing that are in place to ensure a safe, fair and equitable race.

Instead, enforce penalties that are meaningful, butt-kicking and life-altering. If we are going to err, let’s do it on the side of safety. Not carnage.

You now know my opinion.

But let me give you a little reason(s) behind it.

Instead of just opining — like Sarge, and Gary Stevens, and poor little John Clay, and all the others — we came to ours after a little due diligence. After a little digging.

Did you know that Luis Saez has now gotten 6 suspensions in the last 8 months. Five of them are for “careless riding.” Are you kidding me? Six in 8 months?

Most of them were for allowing his horse to “drift,” and not keep a “straight path.” Sound familiar?

Most of them should have sent an alarm.

Yet, I guess, all of them did not.

Let’s review:

  1. On Feb. 3, 2019, Marty McGee, a writer for “The Daily Racing Form,” tweeted that Saez was handed out a 5-day suspension for a ride on Blakey in Race 6 on Feb. 2. That suspension came on the heels of another 5-day suspension that the Gulfstream/Florida Stewards issued him the week before, for an infraction on Thursday.
  2. On Dec. 6, 2018, the New York Racing and Wagering Board issued a 10-calendar day suspension for careless riding for an infraction that occurred in the 4th race at Aqueduct on Nov. 30. In the report, the Stewards noted that Mr. Saez failed “…to maintain a straight course and drifted out without proper clearance with his mount inside the 1/16th pole.” Sound familiar?
  3. On Nov. 4, 2018, the New York Racing and Wagering Board issued a $500 fine to Mr. Saez for misuse of the riding crop during the running of the 1st race at Belmont Park on Oct. 26, 2018. According to the ruling, Mr. Saez struck his mount more than 5 times consecutively.
  4. On Sept. 1, 2018, the New York Racing and Wagering Board suspended Mr. Saez 5 NYRA racing days for careless riding in the first race at Belmont Park on May 10, 2018. According to the ruling, Mr. Saez failed to maintain a straight path in the vicinity of the 1/16th pole. Interesting note: The report states “This after having been previously warned.”
  5. On May 9, 2018, the New York Racing and Wagering Board suspended Mr. Saez 5 NYRA racing days for careless riding in a race at Belmont Park on April 28. According to the report, failed to maintain a straight line.
  6. On April 11, 2018, the New York Racing and Wagering Board suspended Mr. Saez 5 NYRA racing days for careless riding at Belmont Park on Oct. 12, 2017. According to the report, failed to maintain a straight course. The report went on to read: “…and this having been previously warned to maintain a straight course when riding and that safety of the horses and riders are paramount.”

The list goes on and on and on and on.

But you get the point, right?

Three more in New York in 2017.

Two at Keeneland in the Spring of 2017.

Two at Saratoga in the Summer of 2016.

Over 20 suspensions dating back to 2013.

When is it ever going to stop, Mr. Saez?

Ever?

Can you just imagine any other major sports league where one individual has over 20 major infractions and is still eligible to play after just 15 days on the bench?

Name me one?

How can you defend this line of consistent behavior, Sarge? Mr. Stevens? Mr. Clay? Anyone want to jump in here?

I have watched the replay of the Kentucky Derby now well over 100 times. From most of the angles that have been presented.

I have seen social media arguments from Mr. Stevens that the horse — Maximum Security — spooked due to some mysterious “flashing light,” and then veered because of a photographer located at the 1/4-pole.

I have seen people contend that the horse is still young, and immature, and the rider cannot be blamed for the radical behavior.

Truth be known?

When the jockey takes the mount, and the leg up to straddle the horse, he takes responsibility to handle that animal professionally, meticulously, carefully, and safely. That’s the rider’s job. Has to be.

Just as the trainer has the “absolute responsibility” to ensure that his horse has been treated in accordance with all of the rules that govern the sport in that particular state. That’s the trainer’s job. Has to be.

If the rider can’t handle it, then they can’t ride. Especially not in the Kentucky Derby — with 19 other horses in the midst.

If the rider fails to do so? Then the Stewards and the Racing Commission must issue penalties and sanctions accordingly. That’s the job of the Stewards. Has to be.

On Monday, the Stewards and the Kentucky Racing Commission issued their ruling. They gave Mr. Saez 15-days of time to sit in the corner of the room and think about his actions, or lack thereof. He can utilize the time to contemplate his future in this game — which is a privilege; not a right. He can change his ways.

Or he can hire another attorney, cry foul, and claim that he is the one being punished for no fault of his own.

I have heard enough of that, Mr. Saez.

I have seen enough of that, too, Mr. Saez.

Certainly, I have read enough.

But you may be right about one thing, Mr. Saez. The punishment may not be just.

It should have been more.

More days.

More severe.

It’s not career threatening, but perhaps it should be? If it were me? I’d given you 6 months, maybe a year. Just like other major sports certainly would have done, by now.

Let’s just hope now that you change before it’s too late. Before your riding becomes life threatening.

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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