By Katie Petrunyak
John Ortiz draws the analogy of playing cards to what it feels like going into a stakes race at Saratoga. Everyone keeps their hand close and you never can tell who might be bluffing.
But the trainer of Brightwork (Outwork) may have let his poker face slip when he spoke with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the paddock ahead of the GIII Adirondack S. on Sunday.
“I walked in there confident and with a smile,” Ortiz shared. “Irad had worked her and I said, 'You know what you've got and I know what I've got, so just ride her like a big horse.'”
Despite bobbling at the break, Brightwork delivered just as her up-and-coming trainer had hoped, achieving a perfect 3-for-3 record as she swung four wide in the stretch and drew away to win by five lengths sporting the silks of Bill and Tammy Simon's WSS Racing. The victory gave Ortiz his first stakes win in Saratoga.
“I'm very proud that we got to win here,” he reflected. “I feel like I belong. I'm not a rookie trainer anymore. We've all got something to learn on the racetrack every day, but I feel like we know what we're doing. We're here to compete. All the hard work through my entire life, all the good choices and all the bad choices I've made in my life, have paid off.”
Ortiz now has two wins and a stakes placing on his record during his first Saratoga meet this year, but it was only a few years ago that the young trainer was questioning his decision to launch his own stable.
After taking out his trainer's license in 2016, his numbers had dropped from seven horses to four by the end of the first year and he wondered if his dream was going to work out. But then, the Midwest-based conditioner got a call from two key clients–former Walmart CEO Bill Simon and Hootie Moore of Hootie's Racing. Those two stables joined in with Ortiz's longtime client 4G Racing and the wins slowly started to collect.
“We had a lot of claimers and we went through a lot of emotions in those first years,” said Ortiz. “But people noticed that it didn't matter what kind of horse we had, we just gave it our all. [Our owners] know how much we care about these animals day in and day out. From me and all through my grooms, we talk about how special we treat our horses.”
Another key to Ortiz's early success was his connection with bloodstock agent Jared Hughes. Hughes picked up Barber Road (Race Day) for $15,000 as a weanling and the colt went on to take WSS Racing to their first Kentucky Derby last year. The agent has since found another standout in Brightwork.
Hughes purchased Brightwork, a daughter of the unraced Malibu Moon mare Clarendon Fancy, for $95,000 at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton November Sale. He believed that what the filly may have lacked in pedigree was made up for by a standout physical.
“That year we bought five babies and she was the first one we bought,” recalled Hughes. “I try to focus on horses that really stick out to me. She was a beautiful foal–a big, frame-y filly and she really stood out above her peers. That's what stood out to me was how big and strong she was.”
The WSS Racing model involves purchasing around half a dozen foals at the weanlings sales each fall and then refining the group the following year–adding in a few yearling purchases and re-selling one or two to pay for the new additions. Hughes explained that the system works to their advantage as it allows him to focus on finding the horses he likes physically instead of hunting down the most commercial prospects.
“It allows for a lot of flexibility and I think if we buy them early, we aren't paying a premium,” he said. “We can get to know them and decide which ones we want to sell.”
After spending time at Fallbrook Farm, Brightwork was sent to Ortiz's father Carlos Ortiz, a former jockey who now runs Ortiz Training Stables in Ocala. Ortiz said that after his father had spent just a few days with the filly, he told his son that she was one to watch out for.
Brightwork arrived at Ortiz's Keeneland barn in the springtime and, while Ortiz said he normally doesn't send out many 2-year-olds in April, he soon knew she would be an exception. Brightwork made her debut a winning one on April 26 after dueling with Stonestreet-owned Barbtourage (Into Mischief ) in the stretch. The third-place finisher was future G2 Queen Mary S. winner Crimson Advocate (Nyquist).
“She wasn't there 100% fitness-wise, but she was 100% mentally there,” Ortiz explained. “That's why we decided to give it a shot. Sometimes with baby races, I think if they have a little bit of an idea of what they're out there to do, they get the job done. We were amazed that she showed a lot of heart and toughness because she got bumped and then was able to come back and pass through the rail. Not a lot of 2-year-olds run on like that once they get passed.”
Following the victory, Ortiz and his team sketched out a plan to get to the Breeders' Cup. After additional scores in the Debutante S. and the Adirondack, they are now on to the GI Spinaway.
“After her debut, I told Jared that he better get ready to pick out a purple tie,” Ortiz said with a grin. “That was back at Keeneland and I'm still looking for that tie.”
“If anyone knows me, I don't like to wear ties,” added Hughes. “I told Johnny if he gets her to the Breeders' Cup, I will go buy the tie.”
Ortiz is a native of Columbia, but he moved to New York as a child and grew up tagging along with his father at the Bill Mott barn. He started his career as a hot walker for Mott and would later become a traveling assistant for the Hall of Fame trainer before working for Graham Motion and Barclay Tagg. He met Hughes in Kentucky while working for Kellyn Gorder and opened his stable shortly after.
“When he first came to Kentucky, he was just this kid from New York,” recalled Hughes. “He was different from me, but I had a lot to learn from him. He's a great rider and a great horseman. Johnny just has the “it” factor. He speaks horse. He understands them and he listens. This is his first year in New York and it's a big deal for him to be here. We planned to bring a small group up here to try it, but it really came down to us needing Brightwork to be who she is to get to go. When she won at Ellis, it made it easy.”
The Ortiz barn has been a Saratoga success outside of Brightwork's victory. Fellow WSS Racing colorbearers Unsung Melody (Maclean's Music) ran third in the Wilton S. and Urgent Fury (Creative Cause) broke his maiden on July 28.
During the week Ortiz returns to visit his strings in Kentucky, but he relies on the help of his 24-year-old brother Daniel to hold down the fort in Saratoga.
“We discussed this a long time ago,” explained Ortiz. “I told my brother that I would need him to be able to step up and represent the Ortiz family, not just the barn. We're all working on this together. I don't have my name on the logo. It's just two stripes. He has risen to the challenge and made me very proud. He's been doing a great job not just representing me, but the horses themselves. They look incredible and he has taken a lot of pride in the work he's putting in.”
Family is an important aspect of the Ortiz stable. From the horses to the clients to the grooms, Ortiz considers them all a member of his team.
“I have learned a lot from Mr. Bill [Simon],” he said. “He's a really good role model and a good mentor. To be able to win for these types of connections is incredible. Jared has been like an older brother to me and the fact that my dad is the one that always gets my babies started, we all have a really good connection.”
“It is definitely like a family,” Hughes added. “Bill and Tammy treat us like family. They allow us to make decisions. They allow us to make mistakes. This game has a lot of highs and lows, so you really need to enjoy who you're doing it with. We just enjoy being around each other and it means so much because we're doing it together.”
Enjoying the talents of a filly like Brightwork, Ortiz and Hughes agreed, makes their experience together all the more special.
“It means so much because we're doing it together,” Hughes explained. “To have a filly like this with unlimited potential, it means the world. I gave Johnny a big hug in the winner's circle and he said, 'I love you, bro' and that's what I'll remember.”
“This filly brings us all together,” Ortiz said. “Everybody takes pride in what we do for her, with her and because of her. She's just special.”