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In his heart

The Baltimore Sun

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a blog, and in the hours after the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, these are some of the comments that were posted:

"I want this greedy, despicable jockey brought up on charges!! Scum of the earth!!"

"That jockey should have known the horse was in distress rather than beating her."

"I think in cases where the horse dies ... the jockey, trainer and owners should die, also. They are scum and what this jockey did to that horse is reprehensible. This idiot jockey should be banned from ever being near a horse."

"The scum jockey walked away to let her be killed. The horse ran her heart and legs out for him. ... Why couldn't he hold her head in his lap as she died?"

There were others. And PETA itself called for the immediate suspension of jockey Gabriel Saez, who was atop Eight Belles when the filly broke down.

I just had to meet this heartless monster. There he was yesterday at Pimlico, sitting alone in the jockeys room. He had just finished a race. The front of his helmet was still muddied. And on the side was a sticker: "Eight Belles."

"I want it there," said the jockey, 20, a native of Panama. "I want to remember her."

Saez sure didn't sound like the cruel ogre PETA blamed for Eight Belles' unfortunate death. He's soft-spoken and friendly with a sadness behind his brown eyes.

At Churchill Downs two weeks ago, he left the track immediately after Eight Belles was euthanized. He hasn't done many interviews since, mostly because the topic is still fresh and still painful.

"She touched me," Saez said, drawing both hands over his heart.

"Just sucked, man. It's like something happened to my family," he said. "Horses are a part of my life. I'm around horses every day, every morning. My life, man."

The lives of a racehorse and a jockey are closely intertwined. On the track, they move as one. The animal rights activists are generally well-intentioned but sometimes misinformed. Saez was never at fault in the Derby tragedy.

"I feel really bad that people think they need to point a finger and try to blame someone for everything," Larry Jones, the filly's trainer, said yesterday. "I don't know if we're a product of, as I call it, the insurance generation - you want somebody else to be responsible for anything bad that happens to you and share the blame. The thing is, there's just no blame to be put here."

An autopsy report this week showed the filly had no diseases or pre-existing conditions that caused her to break down. Much of the initial outrage over her death surrounded Saez, the idea being that he pushed her too hard down the stretch, that he should have known she was in trouble.

He says he never felt the misstep. By the time he knew something was wrong, he was tumbling on the ground. Saez was stunned. He had never had a horse go down like that before. Ever. Says he's not even quite sure what was going through his head.

And can you imagine? A young jockey, riding in his first Kentucky Derby. The day before, he had ridden another of Jones' fillies, Proud Spell, to victory in the Kentucky Oaks, and then in the Derby he crossed the finish line No. 2. Should've been the best weekend of his life. He says that thought runs through his head every single day.

"It's bad for me, you know," he said. "I was close to this filly. I worked with her every day. I was excited - my first Derby - then that happens? I couldn't believe it."

He went back to his hotel, fired up his computer and watched the race a couple of times. But only a couple. It was too hard to see Eight Belles crumpled on the track.

The next few days moved slowly. Saez was back at Delaware Park the next day, back at work. He knew what was being said - his agent kept him posted and even arranged for extra security at the track.

"Some people said stuff about me, but I don't pay attention. Couple people who don't know nothing about racing," he says. "I'm supposed to protect the animal, you know. That's what I do."

He didn't stop racing. The large circle of jockeys, trainers and owners helped comfort him, reminded him that it could've happened to anyone. Being back on the track kept him from dwelling on Eight Belles' death too much, he says. At Delaware Park, Saez has taken six horses to the winner's circle since the Derby and had 10 more finish in the money.

He had two mounts at Pimlico yesterday, which included a seventh-place finish in the Black-Eyed Susan on another Jones filly, Maren's Meadow. Though he's not racing in the Preakness, he's in three other races today at Pimlico.

And for each of them, he says he'll wear an Eight Belles sticker as a reminder.

Not that he could ever forget.

"What happened, I know it's not my fault. I was doing my job. Angel Cordero, Gary Stevens, every big jockey knows how this goes," he says. "You just keep going. Keep working. Try to win races.

"I'll be back at the Kentucky Derby. I know this. I'll be back."


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