BENSALEM, Pa–Jose Ortiz has had a remarkable year. He’s won every riding title in New York but one, leads the nation in wins with 336 and picked up his first Breeders’ Cup victory with Oscar Performance (Kitten’s Joy) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He’s just not sure if it has been remarkable enough.
The younger brother of Irad Ortiz, Jr., Ortiz spent his Monday and Tuesday afternoons this week riding at Parx. With the money he has made this year he didn’t need to be there. But he’s young, energetic and wants to make a statement. The more races he wins, the better chance he has of winning the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding jockey.
“I’m just 23 years old. I could stop if I wanted to. I’d rather keep going, keep working hard every day,” Ortiz said from the jockeys room at Parx Monday. “If my agent sends me here to ride horses with a good shot I will come. Being leading rider in the country means a lot because if I win the country that will put me in a good position to win the Eclipse Award. I’m not saying I will win it, but I should be in a good position.”
After Tuesday’s races at Parx, Ortiz had 336 wins on the year, 14 more than runner-up Antonio Gallardo. Ortiz got a break when Gallardo, the dominant rider at Presque Isle Downs and Tampa Bay Downs, shifted his business to New York, which lessened his trips to the winner’s circle. Ortiz looks to have a comfortable lead on Gallardo, but his last day of riding in 2016 will be Dec. 18. Two days later, he will get married to former jockey Taylor Rice and will not return until 2017, after his honeymoon. He doesn’t want to give Gallardo an opportunity to catch him.
Perhaps more impressive than Ortiz’s win total on the year is his dominance in New York, widely considered the top riding colony in the nation. The only title he did not win was Belmont Fall, and the primary reason for that was that he rode regularly at Keeneland. He won the prestigious Saratoga riding title by a 65-57 margin over his brother, despite accepting 18 fewer mounts.
“I think I was the best jockey in New York,” he said. “Of course, you can’t take anything away from Irad and Javier [Castellano]. They both have had great years and won a lot of big races. I think Javier is the favorite [for the Eclipse Award], but if I win the country I will earn more votes.”
With the possible exception of his brother, few U.S. based jockeys have come as far as fast as Ortiz. Like his brother, Ortiz is a product of the jockey school in Puerto Rico and he began his career at Camarero Racetrack in San Juan in 2012. By March of that year he was in the U.S. and won his first race that same month aboard a horse named Country Green (Country Be Gold) at Parx. He soon moved on to New York and won the 2014 Aqueduct spring riding title. In 2015, he was the regular rider of female sprint champion La Verdad (Yes It’s True).
But he was always riding in the shadow of bigger names like Castellano, John Velazquez and even his brother. In some respects, he still is. While Ortiz has a loyal client in La Verdad’s trainer, Linda Rice, Taylor’s aunt, he only gets a handful of mounts from New York’s two powerhouse stables, those of Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey is giving him more and more business, but Ortiz does not have a major stable, besides, Rice’s, that he can count on.
“Irad and Javier, they each ride half of Chad Brown’s horses and Johnny [Velazquez] gets most of the business from Pletcher,” Ortiz said. “I’ve gotten in good this year with Shug, who has put me on a lot of horses. But I don’t really have a big stable. I have to go ride for everybody else.”
That is among the reasons Castellano is some $4.5 million in front of him in earnings. Ortiz is third in the nation in that category, also trailing his brother, by about $300,000. Ortiz also trails in the stakes-won category. He has ridden 23 graded stakes winners on the year, only four of them Grade Is. Castellano has won 34 graded races, eight of them Grade Is.
It makes for an interesting Eclipse battle. Do you take the rider who has earned the most money or the one who won the most races and the most New York riding titles? Irad Ortiz, Jr., Florent Geroux and Mike Smith are others who will likely get votes.
With or without an Eclipse Award, Ortiz has had a phenomenal year and is no longer a star of the future but a star of the present. He won’t change anything in 2017 after returning from his honeymoon. He’ll grind it out in the winter at Aqueduct rather than go to Florida, reasoning that he simply makes too much money in New York in the winter to venture into the deep waters of the Gulfstream riding colony. He will continue to ride Mondays and Tuesdays at Parx whenever the opportunity arises. On Twitter, he likes to send out the hashtags #workinghard #nodaysoff.
And he will continue to think big.
“Like everybody else, I want to win the [GI] Kentucky Derby, but the main goal for me is to be a Hall of Famer,” he said. “I want to be someone that everybody remembers.”