Luis Saez rides Maximum Security across the finish line during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 4, 2019. Country House was declared the winner after Maximum Security was disqualified following a review by race stewards. Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

 

Luis Saez was a Kentucky Derby champion jockey for 22 minutes in 2019. He had crossed the finish line first aboard Maximum Security in the slop at Churchill Downs, only to sit through a review of the race by the track’s stewards after the jockeys of two other horses challenged the result.

The fallout was doubly devastating: Not only did the stewards disqualify Maximum Security for interfering with three other horses, but the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission ruled nine days later that Saez was to blame, finding that he failed “to control his mount and make the proper effort to maintain a straight course thereby causing interference with several rivals.” The board suspended him for 15 racing days.

This year, the Kentucky Derby is back on the first Saturday in May after the coronavirus pandemic scrambled last year’s horse racing calendar. Saez is back at Churchill Downs, too, once again aboard a contender – Essential Quality, the early 2-to-1 favorite – as the 28-year-old Panamanian looks to win the Run for the Roses, again, for the first time.

Jockey Luis Saez was suspended for 15 racing days after Maximum Security was disqualified from the 145th Kentucky Derby. Saez been suspended 18 times for more than 100 days for “careless riding” penalties since 2013, but none in the past two years. He is aboard the favorite for the Derby on Saturday. Morry Gash/Associated Press

“It’s one of those things where Luis has confidence in him (and) we have confidence in Luis,” Essential Quality trainer Brad Cox told reporters Sunday at Churchill Downs. “We kind of feel like he’s going to put him where he needs to be, where he’s comfortable, and hopefully he can get in position, turn for home and be there at the wire.”

Essential Quality has won all five of his races and Saez has been on board for four of them, including the Blue Grass Stakes on April 3 and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November. He has become one of the most sought-after jockeys in horse racing, ranking in the top five of wins and earnings.

But Saez also is no stranger to discipline, having been suspended 18 times for more than 100 days for “careless riding” penalties since 2013, according to a Louisville Courier-Journal examination of the Association of Racing Commissioners International database. And the jockey himself seemed to realize that something could be awry almost immediately after the race.

“We just came over there to the stretch, he started getting a little bit scared – a lot of people screaming,” Saez told NBC Sports’ Donna Brothers during the traditional on-horse interview of the Derby winner. “So he’s a baby, you know? He’s learning. So then I grab him and I control him and I keep fighting him because I know he’s a real fighter.”

Last weekend, Cox was asked about the 2019 Derby and whether he thought that things like Maximum Security’s errant swerve off the rail are bound to simply happen sometimes.

“You hate to say it, but sometimes you just have to draw a line through a race, and that’s one of these situations,” Cox said. “We’re hopeful that he’ll bounce back.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner who also has worked extensively with Saez, agreed that the Maximum Security incident was a case of bad luck.

“The horse appeared to see something on the inside of the track that spooked him and he veered out,” Pletcher told the Courier-Journal this week. “I thought Luis did as good a job as he could and corrected as quickly as he could.”

Saez was suspended twice more after the 2019 Kentucky Derby, serving a seven-day ban after a bumping incident at Belmont Park in June 2019 and a 10-day penalty for interference at Saratoga two months later. But he has had a clean record in the nearly two years since and now has another chance to visit the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby after coming so close two years ago.

“Unfortunately, that happened to me, but that’s in the past,” Saez said earlier this month of his 2019 Derby disqualification. “We never stay down. We always look to come back and see if we can win the race. If we win the Derby this year or next year, it’s going to be very big for me and my family.”

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