Horse racing mourns death of 17-year-old jockey Saez in Indiana

Jockey Juan Saez died from injuries sustained during a race Tuesday night at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino. (Reed Palmer, Churchill Downs)
Jockey Juan Saez died from injuries sustained during a race Tuesday night at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino. (Reed Palmer, Churchill Downs)

The Thoroughbred racing community on Wednesday mourned the loss of 17-year-old apprentice jockey Juan Saez, who died Tuesday night from injuries suffered in a spill at Indiana Grand Racing and Casino.

Indiana Horse Racing Commission officials were still reviewing details of the incident, but it is believed that Saez's mount, Montezuma Express, clipped heels with the horse in front of him, Paddy's Notes, ridden by Oriana Rossi.

As a result of the contact in the turn of the 6-furlong race, Montezuma Express fell, causing Saez to be unseated. A trailing horse, Masaru, ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr., was unable to avoid the fallen horse and also fell, unseating Santana Jr.

Saez was airlifted from the scene and transported to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. The Daily Racing Form reported that he lingered on life support for several hours before dying from head injuries at 10:52 p.m.

"There are no words to describe the devastation that we are all feeling," said Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Juan's family during this tragic time."

Masaru had to be euthanized, but Montezuma Express escaped with minor injuries. No other riders were taken to the hospital.

A native of Panama, Saez was the younger brother of fellow jockey Luis Saez and a cousin to Gabriel Saez and Angel S. Arroyo.

Known for his poised-beyond-his-years demeanor in the saddle and glorious smile, Juan Saez captured the leading rider title at Ellis Park this summer with 51 wins from 194 starts. He also earned praise from some of the very best, with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas pegging him a star in the making.

"I thought he had a future that was unbelievable," Lukas said Wednesday. "I thought he could be very easily the next Bill Shoemaker, the next Pat Day. He was so talented and had just a gift for what he was trying to do.

"It's just so tragic, I don't know where to put it. I was even going to let him ride a Breeders' Cup horse as a bug boy, I thought so much of him. This is the downside of our business."

Meyocks said Wednesday that Saez's body was being flown back to his family in Panama.

Saez graduated at the top of his class from the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School in Panama and came to the United States under the guidance of his agent, Julio Espinoza. He had booted home 89 winners from 440 mounts that had earned $2,053,219.

Indiana Grand, located in Shelbyville southeast of Indianapolis, canceled its live racing for Wednesday, in remembrance of Saez. A public memorial honoring his life and career will be held there Thursday.

Keeneland honored Saez with a moment of silence after Wednesday's third race. As the members of Keeneland's jockey colony gathered for the moment, the light rain that had been falling switched to heavy showers — a fitting backdrop.

"It's a shame, you know he was a really good kid. Everybody liked him," 10-time leading Keeneland jockey Julien Leparoux said. "He was always smiling, always happy to be there and he loved what he was doing.

"Life goes on, I guess, but it's tough for everybody. Very emotional in the jocks room today. We will remember him as a possible future star in the business for sure."