Juan Saez: A Perfect Storm Gone Wrong

October 16, 2014

Suppose there was a job for you. A job dangerous enough that an ambulance would follow you around at work. Dangerous enough that you will have a hard time getting health insurance. Life insurance? Well most agents will laugh at you. You’d have to work pretty much seven days a week, including holidays. There is no paid vacation, no vacation at all actually. You’ll have no sick days either. You won’t have a contract, or any guarantee. If you do get sick, or worse hurt, you may lose all the business you have worked for and built up. Accordingly, you can expect to work sick and even hurt. You won’t know how much money you will make either, it can be a lot, if you are consistently among the best at what you do. If you slack however, or have a lot of off days you won’t make much money at all; however, the danger and all those other perks will remain constant. You’ll have to pretty much give up normal meals. Your weight will be monitored to the pound closer than a Cirque De Solei dancer. Words like flipping, purging, and puking will be part of your regular vocabulary. Although you will have to watch every morsel of food, you will also have to stay very fit and in top shape always. Your days will start before the sun rises and finish as it sets but you will still need to find time to work out. After all, you will be expected to control, with precision, animals racing in close quarters at high speeds, that weigh 1100 or 1200 pounds more than you do. Yes, some of them can be wild and unpredictable.

You will always have to watch your liver and kidneys. Besides being banged around constantly, your diet and lifestyle are not very conducive to their staying healthy. You’ll have to be resourceful too, like thinking of things like driving to and from work in a sweat suit with the heat blasting. You have to keep those pounds off. Napping whenever you have 15 minutes will sound like a great idea with your grinding schedule and there is no off season. If you are not used to almost constant criticism it would be a good idea to become very familiar with it. You will be second guessed all the time for split second decisions you make almost instinctively. People who have never dieted, let alone sat on a racehorse, will call you names and blame you for their losing bets. Trainers will be your best friends when you win but some won’t even let you bring donuts by the barn when you lose.

Despite all this, you will have one of the most rewarding careers in the world. You will regularly be at one with the graceful, magnificent and majestic thoroughbred racehorse. You’ll be cheered, revered, and respected by your peers and those who know and understand the Sport of Kings. Those same people who jeered you when you lost will applaud you and marvel at your skill when you win. You will be a fierce competitor and part of a fraternity and family that you will never leave. You, at all of a hundred and ten pounds, will be pound for pound one of the strongest athletes in the world. You’ll be part of history and greatness. You’ll strive to participate in the greatest two minutes in sports, The Kentucky Derby, and who knows, you may even win it. It doesn’t sound so bad all of a sudden.

The tragic events of this week surrounding the death of young jockey Juan Saez are beyond devastating. Though we know it can happen in a flash, it doesn’t take away any of the pain when it does. The entire racing family is mourning this senseless and horrible loss. All you have to do is look at a picture of this young man of just 17 years of age to see his warm and engaging smile. Smiley his friends called him, and with good reason. That wonderful smile never left his face.

There was not a rider with a brighter future than young Juan Saez. He came to the USA from his native Panama just a few short months ago as his older brother Luis did before him. The plan was for him to ride in New York but he was too young to be licensed there so he started his career in Kentucky where he started winning races right away. He had a great seat on a horse and a fantastic work ethic and attitude. It seems to run in the family. He quickly established himself as a top apprentice and an up and comer. Fate can be such an unfair and cruel thing at times. The promise shown was not to be realized due to a bizarre set of circumstances that to me, ring of a perfect storm gone wrong and robbing us of that warm smile and this young man of his life.

It was reported Juan was supposed to take a trip with his agent to New York to start meeting some of the trainers there, where he was going to switch his tack when Aqueduct opened in a few weeks. Unfortunately the flight he was on was cancelled as there was no crew. Most of us who fly somewhat regularly have experienced that ridiculous scenario. Juan stayed home in Lexington Kentucky and accepted some mounts on the Tuesday card at Indiana Grand Race Course, even though he was regularly riding at Keeneland. It is not uncommon at all for bug boys to ride as many horses as they can at as many tracks as they can while they are coming up and learning.

According to reports, Juan’s last mount that fateful day was supposed to be in the 7th race aboard Richard Maynards Out of Patience for trainer Luis Jurado on whom he finished second. Jeremy Rose was scheduled to ride Montezuma Express in the 8th race on the card for trainer Rick Hiles. Jeremy did not show up and Malcolm Franklin was named to replace him. Malcolm went home sick and Montezuma Express was left open or without a rider. Rick Hiles knew Juan from his hard work in the mornings and asked him to ride his horse. Juan said yes.

Montezuma Express clipped heels with a horse in front of him and went down. A horse behind him, Masuru, ridden by Ricardo Santana could not avoid the incident and also went down. When Indiana Grand cancelled the last race I remarked that wasn’t good. I was there when Belmont did it after Mike Venezia went down.

Juan Saez was airlifted to the hospital after expiring on the racetrack and being revived. Reportedly that happened more times at the hospital resulting in some pre mature reports of his passing. At no time was his prognosis good however, as he was critical those last hours with massive head injuries. There is no rider that this is alright to happen to but for it to happen to one so young and full of promise just makes it all the more gut wrenching. Senseless. Juan Saez fought hard but could not survive this perfect storm gone horribly wrong.

The Sport of Kings goes on. Indiana Grand cancelled Wednesday but ran Thursday. Montezuma Express survived and may run again. If he does he’ll have a rider. A fearless and fierce competitor. I however have not been able to pick up a racing form just yet. I’m still paying my respects. We all mourn in different ways.

Our prayers and deepest condolences are extended to the Juan Saez family, all our racetrack family and all riders everywhere.

None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. The best hitters strike out, the best pitchers walk batters, the best quarterbacks throw interceptions, and none are followed by an ambulance. Next time you get a bad ride, don’t curse anyone, they don’t deserve it.


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Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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