The guesses in the disorienting aftermath of the race May 4 centered on a puddle, on a flash of glare, on a distracting sound, on the rare din of 150,000 spectators. It seemed implausible while listening to industry insiders that all that much blame lay with 26-year-old jockey Luis Saez.
That’s why the Kentucky stewards’ further decision to suspend Saez for 15 racing days, released Monday, could have baffled anyone who doesn’t ride horses and wouldn’t dream of riding one competitively. How much should we, as a culture, expect of a small person atop a fast, large animal in a crowd of fast, large animals? We might expect more than we would imagine.
It doesn’t take long around racetracks to tire of people, mostly wagerers, complaining about the competence of jockeys, such that one definition of a bad night out on Earth would be one spent among those who complain about jockeys. Hear complaints about jockey after jockey for a while and one thing grows clear: Jockeying must be so bloody hard.
Yet as Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Executive Director Marc Guilfoil said last week, two of the three stewards who by now have made both unanimous rulings — horse disqualification and jockey suspension — have bustling racetrack CVs enriched with an item Guilfoil saw as crucial: Among their multifaceted jobs, Barbara Borden and Brooks Becraft have served as riders in various capacities.
“They’ve been on the back of a horse, on a racetrack,” Guilfoil stressed.
Days after he spoke, in a hearing Friday, they looked into the Derby ride of Saez and spotted some culpability, lodged in the passage “failure to control his mount and make the proper effort to maintain a straight course.”
In the hours after Maximum Security went down to 17th place, everyone had accused the colt himself, especially with the colt unable to respond on Twitter. Many cited a greenness born of only four races lifetime, all between December 2018 and March 2019. On the Sunday morning after the Derby, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, whose Country House won the race after Maximum Security’s disqualification, said: “I very strongly believe that it was the horse. Why, I don’t know. Sometimes we don’t know the reason why horses don’t run straight. I don’t know that I think he saw something. You know, being a green horse, maybe something caught his eye and he ducked down a little bit.
“And he probably caught Luis off guard a little bit. I’m sure Luis didn’t do that intentionally. He’s an aggressive rider [who has ridden for Mott], but I don’t think a careless rider. I think the horse just kind of got the jump on him, so to speak, when he bore out. Whether he could have even corrected it or not, it’s hard to know. That happens so fast.”
He said, “It all happens in two or three seconds.”
John Velazquez, the two-time Derby winner who rode Code of Honor to a third-place finish corrected to second, last week described the Derby task this way: “You’ve got 20 horses in the race [19 this year]. You’ve got to pay attention what we’re going to do, where’s the position, where we’d like to be, who we’d like to battle, who you don’t want to be behind you because you know the horse is going to come back on you. So all the things have got to come in play that you think you want to have a good trip without compromising your race, basically.”
Such descriptions make the job sound nearly impossible, but that, of course, doesn’t preclude jockey wrongdoing in an old, old sport with jockey suspensions long meshed into the routine hum of the news. Infractions, often sprouting from turns of intimidation central to all sports, generally tilt to the wrong side of Mott’s distinction between “aggressive” and “careless.”
The ruling followed a meeting Friday that, according to Ann Oldfather, Saez’s attorney, had 10 participants (with nine in the room): the three stewards, one former steward and racing official, four Derby jockeys, Oldfather and Saez by phone from New York, where he has been riding at Belmont Park. The ruling stated: “After a hearing before the Board of Stewards, Luis Saez who rode MAXIMUM SECURITY in the twelfth race at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2019, is hereby suspended fifteen (15) racing days, May 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 30, 31, 2019 and June 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 2019 for failure to control his mount and make the proper effort to maintain a straight course thereby causing interference with several rivals that resulted in the disqualification of his mount.”
The three signatures followed: chief steward Borden, Becraft, Tyler Picklesimer. Because such a ruling for one state applies to all, the suspension would remove Saez, who turns 27 Sunday, from the Belmont Stakes on June 8.
“Obviously you never rode a horse at 40 mph,” retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens tweeted in response to a criticism of Saez. “Tough to correct in :04 seconds. Cmon man. Wake [up].”
The rules the stewards cited, however, included the following: “If in the opinion of the stewards a foul is committed as a result of a jockey not making his best effort to control and guide his movement to avoid a foul, whether intentionally or through carelessness or incompetence, the jockey may be penalized at the discretion of the stewards.”
Oldfather called the ruling both “unsupported” and “unsupportable.”
“ ‘Unsupported’ is a reference to the fact that I was present in the room when the stewards did a film review with the four jockeys and Luis on the phone, and all four jockeys said Luis did nothing wrong. . . . There’s no way he could have prevented it,” she said. “How they came up with the ruling that he failed to control his mount, it’s unsupportable because I’ve watched every frame of that videotape.” She said Maximum Security had become “crowded unforgivably from the rear.”
It all gave the Derby That Will Not End another frayed strand to linger across the coming weeks and months and perhaps years. To the ongoing arguments about Maximum Security, tack on one about Luis Saez, all while remembering that any discussion of the toughest job in sports always must include that of jockey.