Saez off to hot start at Gulfstream

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- It might have been a surprise to most of the experts when Luis Saez unseated five-time reigning Gulfstream Park riding champion Javier Castellano to win the 2016-17 Championship meet jockey title. But it certainly will not come as a surprise to anyone if Saez repeats the feat this winter, especially with the defending champ having gotten off to a red-hot start with 24 victories over the first 14 days of the session.

Saez, 25, had edged closer to the top spot here before last winter's meet, finishing fourth in the standings in 2012-13 and 2013-14, and second, behind only Castellano, in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16.

"I was a little surprised myself I was able to beat out Javier last year," said Saez, a native of Panama and a graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School. "And this year we've been getting a lot of support right off the bat from owners and trainers and I want to thank them a lot for that."

Saez used his success here last winter as a springboard to a terrific year, with 225 victories and more than $13 million in purses on his résumé heading into the final weekend of the season. He has posted 26 stakes wins, a dozen of those in graded races, including the Grade 1 Hopeful aboard Sporting Chance for trainer D. Wayne Lukas this summer at Saratoga.

Saez wasted little time serving notice to his fellow riders that he's going to be tough to beat for the title again in 2017-18, winning six races on Wednesday's program, the third time he's reached that milestone during his career.

"I came to the track like it was a normal day," said Saez. "I never expected anything like that to happen. I got surprised that day. All the horses were running pretty good for me."

Saez said he feels no pressure when it comes to defending his Gulfstream title.

"I feel pretty comfortable, no real pressure," said Saez. "We'll just keep trying hard, and if it happens again, it happens."