John Oritz looking for his first stakes win at Oaklawn

January 28, 2022

HOT SPRINGS, AR – Moments after the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses Jan. 15 at Oaklawn, Danny Caldwell was in the Larry Snyder Winner’s Circle discussing the race when trainer John Ortiz interrupted an interview the four-time leading local owner was having with a writer.

“You stole my first Oaklawn stakes win, buddy, too,” Ortiz, jokingly, said as he passed Caldwell.

The one-liner was a reference to the dramatic finish of the Fifth Season. Ortiz’s speedy Mucho, in his two-turn debut, was collared approaching the wire by Caldwell’s popular late-running millionaire Rated R Superstar, who captured the 1-mile race by a neck in his 9-year-old debut.

The outcome gave Caldwell his second Fifth Season victory – he also won the race in 2017 with another 9-year-old gelding, Domain’s Rap – and denied Ortiz his first career black-type score in Hot Springs.

Ortiz, 35, has another chance to update his resume since he’s scheduled to send out starters in two of Oaklawn’s three stakes races Saturday. Barber Road is entered in the $750,000 Southwest (G3) for 3-year-olds while record-setting Hollis goes in the $150,000 King Cotton for older sprinters.

“This is one of the biggest weekends, for sure,” Ortiz said. “This is why we’ve been doing this since we got started. We want to be competing on a level on Saturdays at any track in all the major races. We’re just glad to be part of it now and have owners that support us and believe in our ability to be in these types of races.”

Ortiz credits Caldwell, Oaklawn’s leading owner in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, for helping shape his early career when he struck out on his own in 2016 after working under trainer Kellyn Gorder. Caldwell steered fellow Oklahoma owner Thomas Julian to Ortiz. Julian became one of Ortiz’s first major clients.

Ortiz’s second career victory was the Julian-owned Marine Pilot Dec. 10, 2016, at Remington Park, where Caldwell has dominated the standings the last decade.

Ortiz’s first career Oaklawn stakes starter was P C Cowboy, who finished eighth in the 2017 Southwest, just days after Julian privately purchased the horse from Caldwell. P C Cowboy went off at 144-1. Conversely, Barber Road is 5-1 in the program for the 2022 edition.

“He’s shown that he belongs in these types of races,” Ortiz said. “I’ve always believed in him and he’s here to compete.”

The cavernous discrepancy in odds between P C Cowboy and Barber Road illustrates Ortiz’s career arc. Since starting his first horse in September 2016, the trainer’s purse earnings have steadily climbed each year and surpassed $2 million for the first time in 2021. Ortiz won 48 races, including two stakes, after starting a career-high 314 horses last year, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.

Ortiz has ridden the momentum into the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting that began Dec. 3.

Through last Sunday, Day 20 of the scheduled 65-day live season, Ortiz ranked fourth in victories (eight) and purse earnings ($683,707), the latter figure already approaching his 2021 meet output (a career-high $721,658). Ortiz also had a career-best 15 victories to finish seventh in the standings at the 2021 Oaklawn meet.

Ortiz’s runners, including reformed claimers, have flourished in high-end races this season at Oaklawn.

Top Gunner won a $101,000 allowance race Dec. 5. Hollis set a 5 ½-furlong track record (1:02.17) in a $102,000 allowance romp Dec. 10. Mucho captured a $127,200 allowance sprint Dec. 18 (the purse included a $7,200 bonus for winning without Lasix). Arkansas-bred star The Mary Rose collected a $4,000 bonus after whipping open company in a $105,000 allowance route New Year’s Eve. Ortiz added two more $100,000 allowance victories earlier this month, including one with the promising Arkansas-bred sprinter Gar Hole. Ortiz also finished second in the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1 with Barber Road.

Ortiz notched his first career graded stakes victory with Zulu Alpha in the $100,000 Sycamore (G3) in October 2018 at Keeneland for owner Michael Hui of Little Rock, Ark. Arkansas-rooted owners remain the backbone of Ortiz’s operation.

Barber Road is campaigned by former Walmart executive William Simon (WSS Racing). WSS and Hooties Racing (Brian “Hootie” Moore of Fayetteville) own Grade 3 winner Mr Dumas, who is under consideration for upcoming Oaklawn stakes races.

Top Gunner is owned by longtime supporters 4 G Racing (Brent and Sharilyn Gasaway of Little Rock). WSS and 4 G, in partnership, own Mucho and Hollis, claimed for $80,000 and $50,000, respectively.

On behalf of Moore, Simon and Brent Gasaway, Ortiz won a 12-way shake to claim Honey Bunny for $16,000 out of an April 8, 2018, victory at Oaklawn. Honey Bunny won two races at the 2019 Oaklawn meet and the $100,000 Winning Colors Stakes (G3) for female sprinters later that year at Churchill Downs.

Ortiz, in building his stable, had received three horses from Gasaway previously with Gorder, including All Right, who won the $350,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Stakes in 2016 at Kentucky Downs.

Top Gunner is entered in the $75,000 Stonerside Sprint Stakes for older horses Sunday at Sam Houston. Ortiz, on behalf of 4 G, claimed the gelding for $30,000 last March at Oaklawn.

“John has been the reason for our success,” said Brent Gasaway’s wife, Sharilyn. “He’s a great horseman – on and off their backs. He doesn’t cut corners caring for them and above all he believes in their abilities to win big. We have been with Johnny since the beginning and he’s like family to us.”

The Mary Rose and Gar Hole are homebreds for John Ed Anthony of Hot Springs (Shortleaf Stable). The Mary Rose is entered in the $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic (G3) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles Sunday at Sam Houston.

“We’re very thankful right now for the opportunity,” Ortiz said. “We’ve had a handful of very good clients come through the barn right now – WSS, 4 G Racing, Hooties Racing and Mr. John Ed Anthony with Shortleaf, which is a great help right there. Because of all that support, we’re able to be successful.”

Ortiz has roughly 60 horses in training, split almost evenly between Oaklawn and The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, Ky. Ortiz is based at The Thoroughbred Center training facility, which is 10 minutes from his home.

Mucho is at The Thoroughbred Center, Ortiz said, but could return to Oaklawn for the $600,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for older horses at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 12 or the $200,000 Whitmore Stakes for older sprinters March 19.

By either of those dates, Ortiz could be an Oaklawn stakes winner. In addition to Mucho, Ortiz narrowly missed in last April’s $200,000 Purple Martin for 3-year-old filly sprinters when the WSS-owned Joyful Cadence finished second, beaten a half-length.

“Hey, you’ll get it,” Caldwell said to Ortiz in the brief winner’s circle exchange following the Fifth Season. “Trust me, you’ll get there.”

Ortiz’s father, Carlos, is a former jockey who now operates Ortiz Training Stables in Ocala, Fla., where he breaks and pinhooks horses. Barber Road received his early training from Carlos Ortiz.

Robert Yates, Oaklawn Barn Notes

Photo: John Ortiz/Coady Photography

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