Irad Ortiz, Smith to ride at Kentucky Downs for first time; NY, CA jockeys swarming to all-turf meet

August 27, 2020

FRANKLIN, Ky. (Thursday, July 27, 2020) — Kentucky Downs’ deep jockey colony is getting even deeper for the six-date run of all-grass racing that offers among the richest purses in the world.
The RUNHAPPY Meet at Kentucky Downs kicks off on Labor Day, Sept. 7 and continues on Sept. 9, 10, 12, 13 and 16.

Kentucky Downs leads North America in average field size, and this meet figures to lead 2020 in the number of world-class jockeys riding those horses. The track will be the laser focus of American racing after Saratoga and Del Mar close on Labor Day, with New York’s Belmont Park not opening until Sept. 18 and California’s Santa Anita Park opening Sept. 19. Averaging $2 million a day in purses, Kentucky Downs is luring the most accomplished riders from New York and California along with the already deep Kentucky colony.
Nine of America’s top 10 riders by 2020 purse earnings will be at Kentucky Downs (in order of purse ranking): Irad Ortiz, Joel Rosario, Tyler Gaffalione, Luis Saez, Ricardo Santana, Flavien Prat, Jose Ortiz, Javier Castellano and Florent Geroux. The top seven riders in victories at Saratoga heading into Thursday’s racing are all confirmed for at least part of the meet.


“We already had one of the most talented riding colonies in the world, but this year it’s going to be absolutely incredible,” said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs’ senior vice president and general manager. “It’s not only our lucrative purses, but because we have averaged about 11 horses a race in recent years, there are lots of opportunities for riders instead of just a handful of jockeys dominating. At $2 million in average daily purses, you don’t even have to win for coming here to be a profitable venture. Plus, jockeys tell me just how much fun it is to ride this course as a change of pace from always turning left around an oval.”


Among the top riders participating at Kentucky Downs for the first time will be Hall of Famer Mike Smith, two-time defending Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz, rising California star Umberto Rispoli and Joe Talamo, who relocated from California to Kentucky this year. In addition, Hall of Famers John Velazquez and Castellano, who between them have ridden only a handful of races at Kentucky Downs, will ride the entire meet after coming to Kentucky for Churchill Downs’ rescheduled Derby Week.

Mike Smith- Gwen Davis photo


After Saratoga’s summer meet ends Labor Day, Irad Ortiz, two-time Kentucky Downs defending riding champion Jose Ortiz and Rosario will ride the remaining five days. Jose Ortiz, who will be riding for the fourth year at Kentucky Downs, said during last year’s meet that he’s been urging his brother Irad to fit Kentucky Downs into his annual circuit.


“He really wants to go,” said Jose Ortiz, who said Irad missed last year’s meet because of a suspension for a riding infraction. “He said he’d like to ride the track. I was telling him how it is: Uphill, downhill, long stretch.”
Smith, who will ride at Kentucky Downs for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, is coming in for the Sept. 12 showcase Calumet Farm Day card to ride turf sprint standout Jolie Olimpica in the $500,000, Grade 3 Real Solution Ladies Sprint for trainer Richard Mandella, who likewise is running horses at America’s most unique race meet for the first time.


Smith could ride additional days as his business dictates. Nominations to all Kentucky Downs’ stakes closed Wednesday, Aug. 26.


“I’m excited about getting the opportunity to ride there,” said Smith, whose only prior visit to Kentucky Downs came in 2018 to sign posters commemorating his Triple Crown victory aboard Justify. “I’ve never ridden there. I love going over to Europe to ride, and the course at Kentucky Downs is so much of a European racetrack. I thought it was a beautiful track. It was my first time to see it in person and not just on TV. I thought I was back in Ireland or something.”


Rispoli, a two-time champion in his native Italy, started riding full-time in California this year after being based in Hong Kong. He’s battling Flavien Prat for leading rider at this Del Mar meet. Prat, Del Mar’s reigning summer titlist along with earning Santa Anita’s winter-spring crown, will start riding at Kentucky Downs Sept. 9, with Rispoli at the track at least Sept. 12 and 13, their agents said.


Velazquez’ only prior experience at Kentucky Downs was a pair of off-the-board finishes in 2018. His new agent, Ron Anderson, plans to change that.
“I’m anticipating winning some races with him — and Joel,” said Anderson, also the agent for Rosario, who rode three of five days at Kentucky Downs last year. “They’ve got to be on the right horse. If they’re not, it’s my fault. “I think I’ve got action for both riders.”


Castellano rode at Kentucky Downs for the first time last year to great effect, with two wins and two seconds in five starts. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said of riding all six days this year.
As soon as the New York Racing Association announced the delayed start to Belmont’s fall meet, Kiaran McLaughlin got to work securing business for Kentucky Downs. McLaughlin left his long-time training career in April to become the agent for Saez. The jockey rode two days at Kentucky Downs in 2018, including winning Dueling Ground Derby with Channel Cat, and one day last year. He’ll be riding the final five days this year.
“It just made too much sense to go,” McLaughlin said. “It’s an opportunity to ride for some very nice purses, and we’re not missing anything at Belmont.”

Press Release/ KY Downs- Lead Photo- Coglianese Photo

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