Kiaran McLaughlin doesn’t think Luis Saez deserved to be labeled a reckless driver, but admits he’s been there. When McLaughlin shocked the racing world in March 2020 by announcing he was disbanding his successful stable to become Saez’s agent, he met with the Panamanian driver and said he wanted him to forget the past and focus on the future.
The previous year, Saez rode Maximum Security to an apparent victory in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified for interfering with several rivals at the top of the race when he veered several ways in time what competes for the leader. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Saez, who became the first jockey in history to disqualify his mount from a Derby win for fouling his rivals.
Saez was suspended 15 days for his actions, one of six suspensions he received for careless riding in 2019 in Florida, Kentucky and New York. Saez appealed the Derby suspension and was still fighting it in 2020 when McLaughlin became his agent.
“Let’s put this behind us,” McLaughlin told Saez.
Without hesitation, the rider said to his new agent, “I agree.”
The appeal was thrown out and Saez served his days.
“He had hired a lawyer and it was very expensive to fight,” McLaughlin said.
This was McLaughlin’s second stint as an agent after handling the late Chris Antley’s roster in 1992-93 after serving as an assistant coach for nearly a decade. The Lexington, Ky., native opened a public stable in 1995 and over the next 25 years won 1,577 races in North America, 41 of them Grade 1, including the 2006 Belmont Stakes with Jazil and the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Invader.
In 2019, McLaughlin was one of several New York coaches sanctioned for violating labor laws.
That same year, Richard DePass, who had been Saez’s agent, told McLaughlin he was retiring.
“He asked me if I would be interested in taking over,” McLaughlin recalled. “I had a stable full of nice horses, but with all the problems with the state, the fines, the workers’ compensation costs, I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be interested.’ We talked back and forth for a while. He didn’t believe me and I didn’t believe him, but we met Luis and his wife (Andrea) in January 2020 and we started a few months later.”
“Luis is very humble and very grateful,” McLaughlin said. “He has a great wife and three daughters. He stays at home, he doesn’t go out. He is a very nice person and it is a real pleasure to work with him. And he’s a hard worker.”
McLaughlin keeps his rider busy. While his productivity dipped slightly in 2020 after missing some time due to earlier suspensions, Saez bounced back in 2021 to run 1,635 races, winning 293 and posting career-best earnings of $26,194,654. Neither jockey raced again that year.
He also officially won his first Triple Crown race in 2021 when Essential Quality took the Belmont Stakes. The same horse gave Saez the original Breeders’ Cup winner the previous year, winning the Class 1 Juvenile. In 2022, Saez rode Secret Oath to victory in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks for McLaughlin’s old boss, trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“The one thing that has helped us a lot is the support of so many top trainers with top horses,” McLaughlin said. “Brad Cox letting us ride Essential Quality was just fabulous.”
Saez also rode other Grade 1 winners in recent years for Hall of Famers Lukas, Bill Mott, Roger Attfield and Todd Pletcher, among others.
Saez, who turned 30 on May 19, has won riding titles at prestigious meets in Florida, Kentucky and New York. This year, he and McLaughlin opted to stay in Kentucky after the Keeneland Fall Meet, the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland and the Churchill Downs meet that concluded last Sunday, November 27.
Saez finished the Churchill meet with a flourish, winning six races Saturday and building a lead large enough to hold off Tyler Gaffalione by two wins, 23-21, to secure the title. Gaffalione had four wins on the closing day, with Saez finishing second four times.
Normally, after the Keeneland meet, he would have returned to New York, where three-time Eclipse winner Irad Ortiz Jr. drives.
“The decision to go to Kentucky was not easy,” McLaughlin said. “He has a home in New York, but in Kentucky we’re the first or second choice for almost everyone, so it makes it a little easier for us. In New York, Irad has so many businesses that it’s hard.”
Looking ahead, after Saez rides the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Saturday, he’ll head to Florida and Gulfstream Park for the winter. Saez will go to Keeneland in the spring, then he and McLaughlin will have a decision to make in the summer. McLaughlin is leaning toward Churchill Downs and Saratoga, although the spring-summer meeting at Belmont Park remains a possibility. “I’ve had a lot of success at Kentucky,” McLaughlin said, “and getting back on the field at Churchill Downs would help.”
With the Maximum Security disqualification and other careless suspensions years in the past, conversations about Saez are focused on how well he’s doing, not how reckless.
“It’s a shame that he got that reputation, even though I don’t think he deserved it,” McLaughlin said. “I may have helped him a bit with certain things. I told him to be careful out there, suspensions really affect our momentum.
“Luis has always been a very good person and is a very talented driver who drives well,” said McLaughlin. “He is always looking forward, focusing on the future and not the past. I’m very proud of him.”