By Noel Michaels
After winning back-to-back riding titles at the recently-concluded Kentucky Downs and Churchill Downs fall meets, one might believe Tyler Gaffalione would be a safe bet to carry that momentum to the Keeneland fall meet, which runs Oct. 2-24.
For now that’s not the case, since it’s Luis Saez, someone who you probably might not have considered. That may change before the meet ends because it’s unlikely Saez can keep up such a tremendous winning pace.
It’s hard to find a hotter rider these days than Gaffalione, who has tremendous momentum in Kentucky after winning the jockey title at the six-day Kentucky Downs, following his five-day summer meet title at Keeneland. He then added the Churchill Downs fall riding title, where he finished with 20 victories – eight ahead of runner-up Ricardo Santana, Jr.
However, Gaffalione was no match opening week at Keeneland for Saez, who has been sensational. Bettors should take note if he indeed sticks around the rest of the Keeneland meet.
Saez sprinted out front in the Keeneland jockey standings with an amazing opening weekend of nine wins from 22 mounts (41%), including a record of 6-for-14 aboard 2-year olds (43%). Gaffalione was second in the standings with four wins from 20 starters for a more realistic winning rate of 20%.
Saez’s presence at Keeneland itself was brought about by a twist of fate. Usually a New York rider, Saez left Belmont Park to keep his mount on Maximum Security in the Awesome Again (G1) at Santa Anita. He then was prohibited from making a speedy return to Belmont by New York’s COVID-19 protocols, which require a week’s quarantine and two negative tests in order to be allowed back.
Rather than lose a valuable week of key October competition, Saez made the best of the situation by going to ride at Keeneland.
On Saez’s wild opening weekend ride, he also took down stakes wins in the Woodford (G2) aboard Leinster, the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) aboard Essential Quality, the Alcibiades (G1) aboard Simply Ravishing, the Bourbon (G2) aboard Mutasaabeq, and the Spinster (G1) aboard Valiance. Saez, with former trainer Kiaran McLaughlin as his agent, is building an impressive list of serious Breeders’ Cup-contending mounts. The Breeders’ Cup is at Keeneland on Nov. 6-7.
Just like Gaffalione, Saez’s hot streak didn’t just start at Keeneland. It’s been going on for more than a month even though the jockey continues to fly relatively under the radar. Saez started rolling in late August for the last two weeks at Saratoga, which had been dominated by Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz, Jr., and Joel Rosario. By Labor Day, Saez had upped his final Saratoga win total to 45, which fell three wins short of catching Rosario for third-place.
Saez then enjoyed a highly-successful opening week at Belmont, where he was the leading rider with six wins from his first 29 mounts (21%) until leaving for Santa Anita to ride Maximum Security, who finished second in the Awesome Again and is expected to be among the favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
In addition to Saez and Gaffalione, other top jockeys competing at include Rosario — 4-for-22 (18%) opening week, and Joe Talamo, who started the season 2-for-21 (10%). Rafael Bejarano also won two races.
In case you were wondering what happened to the Ortiz brothers, Irad and Jose, it is unlikely we will be seeing either of them this season at Keeneland. Jose won’t be able to leave Belmont due to NYRA’s COVID-19 restrictions, and Irad is out indefinitely after testing positive for the coronavirus on Sept. 30. He is in self-isolation in Saratoga until at least Oct. 10, after which he will be evaluated.