Jockey Luis Saez dedicates Belmont Stakes win to brother

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK – Luis Saez looked up to the sky after winning the Belmont Stakes aboard Essential Quality. It was not hard to think the words going through his mind were: “This one is for you, Juan.”

The win was Saez’s first official one in a Triple Crown race, but it it meant so much more thinking of his brother Juan.

The 17-year-old apprentice rider was killed in a racing accident in 2014 in Indiana when his mount clipped heels with the horse in front of them. They went down and he sustained fatal head trauma.

“I was giving thanks to the Lord and my brother, Juan, he’s always watching me,” the 29-year-old Saez said of the biggest victory of what has been a great career.

Essential Quality covered the 1 1/2 mile race in 2:27.11 in winning for the sixth time in seven career starts. The favorite in the field of eight paid $4.60, $3 and $2.60 in winning for the Godolphin Stable.

Hot Rod Charlie returned $4.10 and $2.90, while Preakness winner Rombauer was $3.50 to show.

Saez and trainer Brad Cox had expected to get to the winner’s circle in the Kentucky Derby on May 1 with Essential Quality, but the then-undefeated 3-year-old son of Tapit had a bad start and eventually finished fourth.

“In the Kentucky Derby we were so confident that we’re gonna win that race,” Saez said. “He was ready for the race. But we have a little unlucky start … Today the main thing was try to break clean and the rest I know he’s gonna do it.”

Medina Spirit won the Run for the Roses with Mandaloun second and Hot Rod Charlie third.

There is a chance the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit will be disqualified in the Dery after two post-race drug tests had positive results.

Saez knows about disqualifications. Two years ago, he guided Maximum Security to victory in the Kentucky Derby only to wait 22 minutes while the stewards conducted an inquiry for interference against War of Will.

Maximum Security was DQd and placed 17th. Long-shot Country House was elevated to first, giving jockey Flavien Prat his first Triple Crown win.

In winning Saturday, Saez and Essential Quality wore down pacesetter Hot Rod Charlie, ridden by Prat, to get to the winner’s circle.

“This was the race I wanted to win and I got this,” Saez said. “We make history.”

The other thing that put a smile on Saez’s face was knowing he also won for his wife and daughter.

“They are out there waiting for me,” he said. “I’m so grateful to be here.”

It turned out to be a perfect day for Saez, and all his family as well as the 11,238 mostly maskless fans who were allowed to attend the race.

There were no fans allowed last year because of the pandemic. Tiz the Law won the Belmont, with the race kicking off the Triple Crown races and being run at 1 1/8 miles.

Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

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BENSALEM, Pa. – Taiba won the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby by three lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Ridden by Mike Smith, Taiba ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67 and paid $4.80, $3 and $2.60.

It was Baffert’s fourth win in the Grade 1 event at Parx Racing. He also won in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Smith won the race for the third time, all aboard Baffert horses.

Zandon returned $3.80 and $2.60. Cyberknife was another 3 3/4 lengths back in third and paid $3 to show.

Taiba was coming off a second-place finish in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in July. The colt was 12th in the Kentucky Derby under Tim Yakteen, who took over training him while Baffert was serving a 90-day suspension.

“He had a little bit of a rough trip in the Haskell, but we had some time to get him ready for this one,” Baffert said from his base in California. “He proved today he is a good horse. He is getting better and better.”

Baffert Taiba will be pointed toward the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The colt has three wins in five starts this year.

Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has modified paths to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, awarding points to the top five finishers in qualifying races and increasing significance for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and late prep season events.

Most Derby prep races during the qualifying series for 3-year-olds will award points on a 10-4-3-2-1 sliding scale after using a 10-4-2-1 system since 2013. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, run during the season-ending championships on Nov. 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, will increase points from 20-8-4-2 to 30-12-9-6-3 to differentiate the Grade I event from others during prep season.

Select prep races for the 20-horse Derby field have elevated points from a 10-4-2-1 scale to 20-8-6-4-2 to increase their importance and motivate hopefuls to begin their 3-year-old campaigns earlier in the season, track officials stated in a release.

“We believe these modifications adhere to and amplify our goal of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1\ miles on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs vice president/general manager Mike Ziegler said.

The 149th Kentucky Derby and Oaks for fillies will be held on May 5-6, 2023. Derby qualifying season begins with Saturday’s $300,000, Grade III Iroquois for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

The point changes apply to Oaks qualifiers.

Elevated Derby preps include the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in Louisiana; Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; Withers at Aqueduct in New York; Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida; Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in California; Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky.