National News

Ortiz brothers at Spa a sure bet

Posted July 16, 2018 7:20 a.m. EDT

ELMONT, N.Y. _ With the 40-day thoroughbred racing season at Saratoga Race Course just five days away, here is your first tip, a sure thing:

A man named Ortiz is going to be the leading jockey at the most prestigious, most competitive and most popular race meet in the country, maybe the world.

Not much help there. Anyone who follows thoroughbred racing in New York knows there are two talented jockeys with the Ortiz surname. And over the past three years, none of the riders they compete against has been able to keep up with them when the New York Racing Association ships north for the summer.

Jose Ortiz has won the past two riding titles at Saratoga; Irad Ortiz Jr. has been second both times. In 2015, Irad Ortiz visited the Saratoga winner's circle more times than anyone else; Jose Ortiz was second.

It is expected to be more of the same when the gates to the charming Spa spring open at the end of the week.

One more thing. Jose and Irad Ortiz are brothers and have quickly become the most dominating jockey siblings the sport has ever seen. Irad will turn 26 on Aug. 11; Jose hits 25 on Oct. 2.

"They ride all the good horses," Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. said. "They are young. They are talented. They have all the weapons. They have the power. They are only in their 20s! They picked up momentum way before their time."

Cordero knows a little something about winning at Saratoga. Now 75, Cordero earned the moniker "The King of Saratoga" after he won 14 Spa riding titles, including 11 in a row from 1976-1986 during his career.

Cordero is now the jockey agent for another Hall of Famer, John Velazquez. Velazquez, still a threat whenever he gets a leg up in the saddle at the age of 46, owns five Saratoga riding titles, the latest in 2011.

The jockey room also has another Hall of Famer in Javier Castellano, who was the last jockey not named Ortiz to win the most races during a Saratoga meet. He won 66 in 2013 and was tops again the following year with 58 winners.

This meet, like the past three, figures to be all Ortiz, all the time. They could be to Saratoga this summer what the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have been to the American League East this season: total domination.

If you want to see either Ortiz blush, just start telling them how good they are.

"I leave that for other people to say," Jose said with a smile that never seems to leave his face. "I have a lot of respect for everyone here. There are a lot of great riders here. We have Hall of Fame riders here."

He is sitting on a table inside the jockey's room at Belmont Park. Earlier in the day, Irad occupied the same spot but has since gone out for a run around the wide Belmont oval. The two brothers are always working, always trying to get better.

Like Cordero, they are from Puerto Rico. A desire to ride horses made them give up baseball at an early age. Both attended Puerto Rico's Escuela Vocacional Hipica, a jockey school. Irad arrived in the United States in 2011; Jose followed a year later.

The Belmont spring-summer meet ends Sunday and it will be Irad Ortiz who comes to Saratoga with the latest riding trophy. Heading into the final nine races of the Belmont meet, Irad had a commanding 60-49 lead over his brother.

Maybe that's an omen for Irad. When Jose won the past two Saratoga titles, he also won the Belmont spring/summer meet. Irad pays attention to that.

"I don't think nobody is better than anybody else," Irad said. "Some things I can do better than other riders. Some things they do better than me. To be a good jockey, you have to have the whole package."

The whole package includes being able to break a horse out of the gate; knowing when the horse is comfortable early in the race; knowing how to get a horse to relax and when to get the most of him when the real running starts in the stretch, he said.

At last year's meet, Jose finished with 58 wins and Irad was right behind with 53. According to Equibase, horse racing's official statistical site, the Ortiz brothers finished first and second in 16 Saratoga races.

Despite being the top riders on the circuit, you'll find the brothers are very close. Eleven of those races were won by Jose. A break here or there and maybe it's a different final outcome.

The brothers don't think about things like that. It's just not their way.

"I think they are genuinely happy for one another," said Jimmy Riccio, who has been Jose's agent for six years. "Both of them just really like to ride horses. And they are the best of friends."

When they are in Saratoga, the two brothers live in the same house. Jose has a wife (former jockey Taylor Rice) and a 1-year-old daughter, Leilani. A son is on the way, due in the fall. Irad also has a daughter, Sarai, born in 2015.

Away from the track, the brothers are as competitive with each other as they are on it. Basketball. Ping pong. A game of cornhole or PlayStation. Neither wants to lose.

"It doesn't matter what happens on the track," said Jose, who won the family's first Eclipse Award as the nation's best jockey in 2017. "When the races are over, they're over. I am going to have some great days and he is going to have some great days. If he wins five in one day and I win none, I'll go home and feel good for him. And vice versa."

Each brother has won a Belmont Stakes, Jose in 2017 with Tapwrit, Irad the year before with Creator. Jose finished second in this year's Kentucky Derby with Good Magic and was second in the Belmont with Gronkowski.

Both of those horses are trained by Mechanicville's Chad Brown, who uses both brothers.

Jose rode 29 horses for Brown at last year's Saratoga meet and won 11 races; Irad was on 34 Brown horses and got to the winner's circle 10 times.

"They are both extremely talented riders," Brown said. "They are very respectful to me and my clients and they always come to the paddock very well prepared. They are the complete package. But they can always get better, and they will be the first ones to tell you that."

The Ortiz brothers will pack up their cars and head north in the next few days, getting set for what is becoming an annual run through the rest of the New York Racing Association's riders.

As expected, no predictions from either.

"(Irad) knows he is pretty good and I know I am pretty good," Jose said. "We just want to keep chasing our dreams."

"I hope I do (win the title)," Irad said with a laugh. "(Jose) will be hard to beat because he is always tough. I will just work hard."

Cordero, arguably the best rider ever seen in the Spa City, was asked how tough he thought the Ortiz brothers would be to beat at this summer's meet. He laughed.

"They are going to be tough to beat anywhere," Cordero said. "They are going to be really tough for the next four or five years."

twilkin(at)timesunion.com - 518-454-5415 - (at)tjwilkin

Saratoga season

When: Friday

Where: Saratoga Springs

First race: 1 p.m.

More info: nyra.com