GABRIEL SAEZ speaks in a voice that sounds as if it travels through cotton, each word soft and muffled, suggesting a persona more horse whisperer than whip snapper.
"People treat me like a monster," Saez said as he leaned on a Ping-Pong table in the jockeys' room at Pimlico Race Course last Friday, "but I keep going."
For an instant Saez seemed almost worthy of a PETA pity party. The animal-rights group toted signs near the Pimlico gates last Saturday in Baltimore to protest horse-racing cruelty, with the filly Eight Belles as their poster martyr and her former rider Saez as their sworn enemy. As if the 20-year-old Panamanian jockey could have looked any more like a victim: His cheeks were as hollow as potholes from the jockey diet, which has no book because there would be no pages required. In preparing to race on the Preakness undercard he shed two pounds from his thumb-sized frame by sitting for 20 minutes in a sweatbox that could steam clams.
Here was the incredible shrinking villain. Fair or not, someone had to be to blame for the chilling ending at Churchill Downs on May 3, when Eight Belles broke her two front legs after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and had to be euthanized on the track. So PETA fixed on Saez, accusing him of whipping the filly mercilessly—he struck her at least eight times down the stretch—and calling for his suspension. Trainer Larry Jones defended his jockey, explaining the whip was meant to keep Eight Belles from drifting into the rail.
But just when my inner Mister Ed started to go sweet on Saez, he defended himself with loopy logic. "The whip is half a pound, and the horse is 1,200 pounds," he explained. "It doesn't do anything to the horse."
Who knows the pain tolerance of a horse? And why beat its hide at all? In a tight Saturday matinee race aboard Buy the Barrel, Saez repeatedly flailed his whip down the stretch to win. "Some horses resent the whip," says Jones, who trains Buy the Barrel. "But if the horse responds when you hit it, you owe it to the public to try to get that horse the best place you can because they put their money on the horse to do it."
This calculating view of profiteering off the bamboo legs of racehorses—bred for speed at the expense of durability in the rush for money—is part of Jones's job, but it's also the kind of philosophy that sends PETA's faux fur flying.
In his white cowboy hat the folksy Jones is one of many likable horsemen who cannot wrap their 10-gallon heads around the changing Marley & Me world order: Animals are the new people. Long removed from an agrarian society, we've morphed into technobots in an often isolating age of iPod earbuds, text messages and impersonal e-mails. Sometimes, pets provide the only authentic connections for those weary of facing RE: MEMO every day.
Pets are uncomplicated and unplugged. This culture shake-up is catnip to PETA as it gains momentum and members (1.8 million strong), while amplifying the outcry over four-legged victims at every turn. On behalf of dogs, the group used the images of mutilated pit bulls and Michael Vick. With horse racing, a photo of Eight Belles collapsed on the track is the picketers' pick.
Visceral visuals work. And while PETA rages against horse doping, faulty breeding methods and the practice of turning thoroughbreds into pet food when their money-earning days are over, it has a face and a prop to bolster its cause with Saez and his whip.
Take the whip away and vanquish a symbol of cruelty. This wouldn't merely be a sop to PETA—it's a move industry types from legendary jockey Jerry Bailey to race caller Trevor Denman support if it can help restore credibility to every owner and trainer who proclaims that the horse's health is a priority.
"I keep getting told the jockey needs the whip for control," says Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, an equine orthopedic researcher at Colorado State. "I think we've got reins to do that."
Jones counters with the New Coke approach: "If they want to go to a lighter whip, where the horse would still hear the popping sound, I'd be great with that." But lighter is still visible. It's public perception that empowers the PETA point of view and leaves a soft-spoken jockey like Saez vilified for using the crude tool of his trade.
"Perception?" Jones said with a smile, standing next to a truck bearing a green Eight Belles bumper sticker. "I know it's about perception. But I also know some people who say they use whips in the bedroom. Now to me that wouldn't be good. But hey, it's what they like."
Eight Belles didn't have a choice.
If you have a comment on the use of the whip in horse racing, send it to SI.com/pointafter.
Take the whip away and vanquish a symbol of cruelty. It's a move that can help restore credibility to every owner and trainer who says the horse's health is a priority.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER