LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - In 2008, jockey Gabriel Saez nearly pulled off the Oaks-Derby double.
Saez booted Proud Spell to a victory in the Kentucky Oaks and the next day finished second to Big Brown aboard Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby. The following year, Saez was back in the Derby aboard Friesan Fire, but he finished 18th in the race.
The 31-year-old native of Panama has more than 1,200 career victories but hasn’t been back in the Run for the Roses since 2009.
“It takes a lot of work,” Saez said. “A lot of things have to come together.”
Well, things have come together for Saez this year, because he’ll be making his third Derby start aboard Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards. He’s been aboard the son of Goldencents for all five races of his career, including the narrow win in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.
Saez said he’s thankful to trainer Bret Calhoun and owner Chester Thomas for keeping him on the horse.
“I’m really glad to be back,” he said. “I appreciate Bret and the connections for the great opportunity and I am looking forward to it. I win this Derby and everything is going to change. And you never know, I just am happy to have the chance.”
A native of Panama, Saez began his career in 2004 and was the leading apprentice jockey in Panama in 2005. He came to the United States in February 2006 and in 2008 was one of the top riders in the country. He finished 34th among all riders in earning that year.
Saez started his career in the U.S. at Delaware Park where he hooked up with trainer Larry Jones. It was Jones who put Saez on most of his top horses early in his career, including Eight Belles, who broke down just after the finish line in the Derby and was euthanized.
During his career, Saez has ridden in the Midatlantic states, along with Kentucky and New Orleans and Florida. He’s finished among the top 100 riders in earnings six times since ’08, but he’s had several injuries and some off-the-track issues that have hindered his career.
Saez has been up and down.
“I was 20 years old back there,” Saez said this week. “I was just getting into this county and was with Larry riding everything. He gave me the opportunity and I didn’t really know what I know now, back then. I’ve went through a lot the last couple of years, the ups and downs. But I kept working hard and hoped for the best. So, to be back on for the third time (In the Derby) is really special to me. If you get a little opportunity, you really have to take advantage of it.”
By My Standards, who has generated a lot of buzz on the backside already at Churchill Downs, made his first start last November at Churchill. He finished second and then was second and third in his next two starts - both at the Fair Grounds.
He finally broke his maiden in his fourth start, on Feb. 16 at the Fair Grounds, and rallied late as a 22-1 shot to win the Louisiana Derby.
“He’s getting better,” Saez said. “To be honest with. You, I don’t want to talk much about it. He’s doing tremendously well. Fingers crossed, he stays that way for the next couple of weeks. We just have to hope for the best and for him to be. 100 percent and he’s there right now. With a little bit of luck, we can get the job done.”
With a Derby runner-up on his resume, Saez said he’s gotten a little taste of what it takes to win the Derby. But he said “there’s no pressure on me,” to go out and win the race. He also knows if he were to capture the roses, his life would change.
“It’s the biggest race in the world, and every jockey’s dream,” Saez said. “To have a chance to be in there and have a chance to ride a horse like By My Standards, he won the Louisiana Derby and he’s improving. We have a chance and that’s all you want. I am just going to try my best and who knows what will happen.”