Luis Saez’s journey to the Belmont Winner’s Circle

July 10, 2021

ELMONT, N.Y. – The pageantry of Belmont Park emanated off the television screen when Luis Saez watched as the track hosted its crown jewel, the Belmont Stakes, from his native Panama growing up.

When Saez began his professional riding career winning $10,000 claimers at the Miami Gardens-based Calder Race Course in 2009, the allure of Belmont remained strong, offering the then-apprentice jockey the opportunity to dream of competing in one of racing’s marquee events.

In June, Saez blended aspiration and ability, fulfilling his dream of winning the Belmont Stakes – and garnering his first win in a Triple Crown race overall – when piloting 6-5 favorite Essential Quality to a 1 1/4-length victory over Hot Rod Charlie in the 153rd running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.

Though nowhere close to the sport’s pinnacle he would later reach, Saez was successful from the start of his career, winning 105 times in 479 mounts in 2009, surging to the top of the national apprentice jockey standings and earning an Eclipse Award nomination for top apprentice rider. That early ability was honed at the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School in Panama City, giving Saez a strong foundation that helped lead to his eventual winner’s circle trip following the “Test of the Champion.”

“I remember when we were in Florida, we always wanted to come to this place. It was my dream to be riding at Belmont,” Saez said. “I remember growing up watching the Belmont Stakes. It was something so big and special. To win it, it was magnificent for us. We’re so blessed to be here.” 

Saez has exceeded 200 wins in every full year since 2015 and is on pace to do so again in 2021. The now 29-year-old has amassed high win totals but not at the expense of quality, coming into his own by tallying 34 graded stakes wins since 2020. In the last year and a half, Saez has won 10 Grade 1 events, including his first-ever Breeders’ Cup victory when guiding Essential Quality to a win in the Juvenile.

“Every year, I feel like I’m learning more and doing better,” Saez said. 

That Juvenile win secured an Eclipse Award for top 2-year-old for Essential Quality. It also helped trainer Brad Cox notch his first Eclipse trophy as Outstanding Trainer. Just six months later, Saez facilitated another career milestone for Cox, who earned his first win in an American Classic when Essential Quality was feted with white carnations after the Belmont Stakes. 

“He’s always played a role in us being able to go to the next level,” Cox said. “He’s played a big part in the success we’ve had. He’s just always been very helpful in so many ways, and we look forward to continuing the relationship.

“He’s very good from the gate and can get horses in position early in the race and he’s great under pressure,” Cox added. “He’s one of the best riders in the world and he’s shown that over the last few years with winning some of the biggest races in the Middle East in addition to the Breeders’ Cup and the Belmont. He’s a very talented athlete, to say the least.”

Cox cited Saez’s ride aboard Spelling Again five years ago in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney at Gulfstream Park in 2016 as an effort that epitomized the type of impact the rider could have on a talented horse. That win by a neck over Cali Star in the seven-furlong main track sprint was a harbinger of the special moments that would await the Saez-Cox tandem later.

“One of the best rides I ever saw was when he rode a filly for us at Gulfstream in 2016 when he was on Spelling Again in the Princess Rooney, and he showed how strong he could finish there,” Cox said. “It was early on when we were picking up some graded stakes horses. He was always so hopeful.”

Cox said he appreciates the feedback from riders, especially ones who have developed a strong rapport with a horse.

“I may run 4-5 horses a day, but they ride 10 a day, and Luis is such a good horseman and such a good judge of pace,” Cox said. “His feedback is very helpful. He’s an all-around great jockey.”

Essential Quality ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby on May 1, giving Cox half of the superfecta as stablemate Mandaloun was second to Medina Spirit, whose result is in question. Essential Quality was the favorite in the “Run for the Roses” as well but bumped at the start and finished 4 1/2 lengths back. Saez said he wanted to avoid trouble leaving the gate in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, which he did, tracking Hot Rod Charlie’s hot pace of 22.78 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and the half in 46.49 before overtaking him by the quarter-pole and fending off his late rally.

“It was something very special; he had a big shot to win the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, we had an unlucky break, but I had a lot of confidence in him,” Saez said. “Stuff happens, but in the Belmont, he was magnificent. The only thing we were worrying about was having a clean break and thank goodness he did it.”

A talented jockey with no live mounts is like an Aston Martin without high-octane fuel to power the V12 engine. That’s where Kiaran McLaughlin has helped Saez take that next career step.

McLaughlin took over as Saez’s agent in March 2020 after Richard DePass retired, and the partnership blossomed immediately, with Saez being assigned live mounts and making the most of his opportunities in winning Grade 1 contests with Vequist [Spinaway], the Woodward [Global Campaign], Fourstardave [Halladay], Ballerina [Serengeti Empress], Darley Alcibiades [Simply Ravishing] and Spinster [Valiance] among others.

McLaughlin knew Saez well from his time as successful trainer in which he compiled 1,577 wins from 1995 until retiring from his role as a conditioner last year to take Saez’s book.

“He’s very strong and does his homework. One of the best things he does is break well out of the gate and gives all his horses a chance,” McLaughlin said. “He gives them an excellent chance by being forwardly placed.

“He tries hard on all of them. For me as his agent, he never complains,” he added. “He’s willing to go out and work in the morning any time. He’s very appreciative of his position in the business and he’s got a wonderful family and he’s with them all the time he can be when he isn’t riding. He likes to run and stay fit, so he’s very diligent. He’s great to work with and a great person.”

Saez parlayed his strong ending to 2020 into the early part of this year. Before there was Belmont Stakes glory on the line, Saez traveled halfway around the world to compete in the $12 million Group 1 Dubai World Cup and led Mystic Guide to a win.

That success – and the Triple Crown trail that followed – made Saez reflect on his start at Belmont, where he went 0-for-4 in 2009 and did not return to ride at the track until 2013, where he went 66-76-72 in 515 mounts, including winning the Grade 2 Peter Pan with Freedom Child and the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay with Tannery. The Belmont Stakes win also mitigated the disappointment of 2019, when Saez crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby on Maximum Security before the horse was disqualified for interference and placed 17th.

“It’s been a blessing for us. When we started here, it wasn’t easy,” Saez said. “I know it’s like that for everyone, but we just kept working hard. Kiaran has my book and he’s been doing a great job. To win the Dubai World Cup and go on from there, it’s been great.”

Saez, who has just more than 2,700 career wins, is on pace to crack the 3,000-win threshold in 2022. His career earnings of more than $140 million place him in the top-40 all-time. 

Saez boasts the second-highest purse earnings [$4,066,246] at the current 48-day Belmont spring/summer meet and the veteran rider will look to add to those riches on Closing Weekend, piloting Hidden Enemy in the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational and Ova Charged in the Grade 3, $150,000 Victory Ride on Saturday. On Closing Day, Saez has the call on Delta’s Kingdom in the $150,000 River Memories.

NYRA Bets is the official wagering platform of Belmont Park, and the best way to bet every race of the spring/summer meet. Available to horseplayers nationwide, the NYRA Bets app is available for download today on iOS and Android at

By Brian Boh

lPhoto: Jockey Luis Saez celebrates Essential Quality’s Belmont Stakes win with trainer Brad Cox and Godolphin’s Jimmy Bell. (Eric Kalet)

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