Kentucky Derby Jockey Profile: Luis Saez

April 26th, 2021

Who is Luis Saez?

The rise of jockey Luis Saez has been meteoric. There was no gradual ascent through the ranks; no slow but steady progress on the U.S. racing scene. Ever since Saez started riding, he’s been a force to be reckoned with.

Born in Panama, Saez won 37 races in his home country before bursting on to the Florida racing scene in the summer of 2009. Before long, he was winning races in bunches, tallying 105 victories by the end of the year to earn a nomination for outstanding apprentice jockey at the Eclipse Awards.

Saez has kept up his extraordinary pace ever since, winning a minimum of 142 races every year between 2010 and 2020. He’s ranked among the nation’s top 10 jockeys by wins every year since 2017, accumulating well over 100 graded stakes triumphs along the way. In 2020, Saez picked up his first Breeders’ Cup victory by guiding Essential Quality to a stretch-running score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

Saez will reunite with Essential Quality in the 2021 Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs, where they’re widely expected to claim top honors. Saez has already tasted success in the "Run for the Roses," guiding Maximum Security first across the finish line in 2019. But Derby glory was short-lived; Maximum Security (through no fault of Saez) had the misfortune to drift out and cause interference on the far turn, prompting a disqualification to 17th place.

Maximum Security is one of seven horses Saez has ridden in the Kentucky Derby, with those seven mounts contributing a sizable portion of Saez’s 3-for-33 (9%) lifetime record in 1 1/4-mile dirt races. Considering how well Saez has been riding in recent years, he’ll surely improve these stats as more opportunities arise to ride top-tier horses in major races. Anyone who witnessed Saez’s crafty front-running win aboard Global Campaign in the 2020 Woodward H. (G1) knows Saez can be master tactician when riding 1 1/4 miles on dirt.

An important component of Saez’s success is his ability to ride well at a wide variety of racetracks. From coast to coast, he’s enjoyed success at practically every track of prominence. Saez is especially effective when riding over dirt and synthetic surfaces, winning at a 20% rate.

What are Jockey Luis Saez's Records related to the Kentucky Derby?

Below are statistics for Saez's efforts at race tracks with more than two Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races, plus lifetime data at the 1 1/4 mile distance and Churchill Downs specifically.

Win %
Churchill Downs
Fair Grounds
Gulfstream Park
Oaklawn Park
Santa Anita
Tampa Bay Downs
Turfway Park

Lifetime record over 1 1/4 miles on dirt:

Starts Wins Places Thirds
33 3 4 2
  Win % ITM % ROI %
  9% 27% -48%

Lifetime record in the Kentucky Derby:

Starts Wins Places Thirds
7 0 0 0
  Win % ITM % ROI %
  0% 0% -100%

Lifetime record stats compiled by Ed DeRosa and are through 2020.

All stats from Jan. 1, 2016 through April 20, 2021. Generated by STATSMASTER, Powered by TrackMaster, an Equibase Company

Let’s examine Saez’s resume a bit closer, exploring his dirt stats from 2016 onward at tracks that host multiple Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races:

Saez at Aqueduct

Saez typically misses most of the winter racing action at Aqueduct, preferring instead to ride in Florida. But he’s nevertheless picked up some major autumn stakes wins at Aqueduct, with a triumph in the 2019 Cigar Mile (G1) aboard Maximum Security contributing nearly half of the $866,220 Saez has earned by riding 12% winners over the Aqueduct dirt since 2016.

Saez at Churchill Downs

One dirt track where Saez has struggled to gain momentum is Churchill Downs, where he’s won at just an 8% rate since 2016. But there have been a few highlights along the way; in addition to his brief reign as a Kentucky Derby-winning jockey, Luis Saez won the 2013 Clark H. (G1) aboard champion Will Take Charge, who had previously given Saez a top-level win over 1 1/4 miles in the Travers (G1) at Saratoga.

Saez at Fair Grounds

Saez isn’t a frequent rider at Fair Grounds, going just 1-for-9 (11%) over the main track since 2016. But a day trip to the New Orleans oval earlier this spring saw Saez guide Chess Chief to an upset victory in the New Orleans Classic (G2), a race in which Saez perfectly timed a late rally to win by a head.

Saez at Gulfstream Park

Gulfstream Park has traditionally been Saez’s winter base, and during the 2017-18 Championship Meet he won a record 132 races, including two occasions when he won seven races in a single afternoon. Saez’s record over the Gulfstream main track stands at an impressive 361-for-1,607 (22%) since 2016, including a win in the 2019 Florida Derby (G1) aboard Maximum Security and a couple of triumphs in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2).

Saez at Keeneland

Did you know betting all of Saez’s dirt mounts at Keeneland since 2016 would have produced a profit of 7%? Coupled with Saez’s 24% win rate, these stats are impressive, though they don’t begin to communicate how hot Saez has been during the 2021 Keeneland spring meet. Through April 20, Saez has gone 20-for-55 (36%) over the main track, including a victory aboard Essential Quality in the historic Blue Grass (G2). If Saez can maintain this momentum when racing on the Kentucky circuit shifts to Churchill Downs for Derby week, victory on the first Saturday in May will be that much closer to reality.

Saez at Oaklawn Park

A handful of forays to Oaklawn Park have been highly productive for Saez, who wins at a 21% rate over the Arkansas oval. Saez picked up more than a million dollars in purse money when guiding Magnum Moon to triumphs in the 2018 Arkansas Derby (G1) and Rebel (G2) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. But arguably the best horse Saez has ridden at Oaklawn is Essential Quality. They kicked off their preparations for the 2021 Kentucky Derby with a runaway win in the Southwest (G3).

Saez at Santa Anita

Racing in California has historically had a reputation for emphasizing speed more than East Coast racing, but if there’s still a difference between the two coasts, it doesn’t bother Saez. Over the course of three racing days last September, Saez paid a visit to Santa Anita and went 4-for-13 (31%) over the main track, most notably producing a perfectly timed charge from C Z Rocket to win the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G2).

Saez at Tampa Bay Downs

Although Saez spends each winter at Gulfstream Park, he rarely travels across the state to Tampa Bay Downs. Nevertheless, he’s gone 2-for-7 (29%) over the Tampa main track since 2016, suggesting more frequent trips to Florida’s Gulf Coast could be lucrative.

Saez at Turfway Park

Turfway Park boasts a synthetic racing surface rather than a dirt track, and Saez doesn’t ride there often. From just six mounts over the last five years, Saez has picked up one win and a place.

Jockey Luis Saez has become one of the absolute best riders in the nation. Saez, who usually rides between Gulfstream Park and on the New York circuit, started riding in 2009. In less than a decade, Saez's mounts have earned over $71.8 million dollars.

Saez has an uncanny knack for making horses run better than they would under a different jockey. Every horse Saez rides appears to have a shot at the top of the stretch. He's that good.  Another reason Luis is so great is that he has no fear and tries as hard on a maiden claimer as he does on a mount in a Grade 1 race.

Check out 5 races that display Luis Saez's greatness.

2016 Bluegrass Stakes - Brody's Cause

Brody's Cause went off at 9/2. The favorite in the Bluegrass Stakes last year was the Todd Pletcher trained Zulu at 2 to 1. Watch how Saez works Brody's Cause around the turn, and in the stretch. Luis uses that forceful action on every horse he rides. Many times, horses try harder when Saez pushes them.

2015 Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes - Grand Arch

Grand Arch's win over The Pizza Man and Tourist in the 2015 Shadwell Turf Mile was all Luis Saez. He muscled Grand Arch home for the win. As soon as Tourist dived to the rail, I thought Saez and Grand Arch were done. Saez can ride any horse on any surface. But, I've seen him do amazing things while on the back of a turf horse.

2016 Black-Eyed Susans Stakes - Go Maggie Go

Once again, Luis muscled home a horse. This time, it was 9/5 shot Go Maggie Go in the 2016 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. What I love about Saez's ride on Go Maggie Go is how he knows when to push her. Horses on the inside usually don't accelerate past horses to their outside. Saez got Go Maggie Go to relax along the rail. Then he got her a horse length off the rail before pushing her to the wire.

2013 Travers Stakes - Will Take Charge

The most famous horse that Luis has ever rode so far in his career is Will Take Charge. Will Take Charge went off 9 to 1 to win the 2013 Travers Stakes. What's amazing to me is how well Saez and Will Take Charge worked together in this race. Let's be honest, Will Take Charge looked like he was going to throw in the towel before Saez got him to make that incredible surge right at the end.

2013 Breeders Cup Classic - Will Take Charge

Did Will Take Charge win the 2013 Breeders Cup Classic? No, he didn't. But, Luis Saez's ride was so great that I thought I should add it to the list. This is the thing about Saez. It doesn't matter what horse he's on, that frenetic motion that he displays from the top of the stretch to the end of the stretch he does on every horse he rides, every day. Sometimes, many times, horses don't respond enough for the win.

That's okay. Luis is such a competitor that often those horses still end up in the money.