The Ortiz Brothers: On Top of the World

July 8, 2016

I never understood the position some people take in horse racing, when they say the rider doesn’t matter. I have been watching races and riders a long time, and the rider makes a world of difference and affects the outcomes of countless races. I also think we see examples of riders helping horses win daily, and also costing horses races. To ride professionally takes talent, fearlessness, and dedication, but don’t make the mistake all are equally gifted, and that any jockey would simply win every time given the best horse. Trips, decisions, and talent impact races and horses. Sure, to play in the NFL you must be a good football player, but the differences in contracts screams out all players are not created equal. It is no different with most professional athletes, jockeys included.

Ortiz brothers jockey room side by side
Ortiz brothers jockey room side by side

To reach the highest level in The Sport of Kings as a jockey takes a number of factors, one is having a top agent who really understands the game. Irad Ortiz Jr. and his slightly younger brother Jose both have the talent, drive, dedication and ability it takes. They also have the right agents creating nothing short of a dream team. These young men are at The Top of the World, and they deserve to be there, and it is a privilege to share why. While we will look at their early budding careers, already laden with accomplishments, we’ll also look at what makes these dream teams and great riders tick and some intangibles.

Being a fan and student of the game, I started watching riders and horses at a very young age. I started noticing riders had tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. They had preferences in how they rode also, as in on the lead, or off the pace, or on the rail, or on the outside. This became very apparent to me when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and used to watch a lot of races from a hole in the fence at Aqueduct, right where the far turn rounded into the stretch. No, for the hundredth time I did not make the hole in the fence. I simply utilized what was already there.

Watching races there gave me a whole different perspective than watching on the monitors or from the stands. The easiest way to equate it was like watching a championship boxing match on TV, or from the bleachers, or ringside. Ringside is a totally different perspective. From TV or the bleachers, it is just a show, like any other. Ringside, it’s a fight. You hear the hits, you see the blood, you see the sweat, you feel the thuds and vibrations. You hear the grunts and moans. Things you don’t see, feel, or hear on TV or from the upper decks. You may know they are happening, but it isn’t the same as seeing it up close and personal.

I remember sitting ringside when Mike Tyson knocked out Joe Frazier’s son Marvis in about 20 seconds. It was in Glens Falls, New York just prior to the Saratoga meet opening if memory serves correct. I got hit with Marvis’ blood and sweat so hard it stung. You don’t get that feel from the bleachers, or on TV, and it is no different with watching a race. If you want to see how tough it is, find a spot like that hole in the fence.

Watching those races from that hole in the fence taught me a lot. Personally, I believe race riding was allowed to be a tad tougher back then, but that is not to say it is in any way easy today. Maybe it’s even tougher in some ways as technology shows everything today. I learned not only did jockeys communicate with their mounts, via the reins, chirping, the whip or crop, but also with each other. I heard them holler for room, I heard them tell others to get out of the way, to stop leaning or crowding me, and even some profanities, many of which seemed warranted to me from my vantage point. Things got rough, and these guys wanted to win. It was extremely competitive.

The New York riding colony was as strong and talented as any, so I got to see the best and learn their strengths, weaknesses, nuances, and more. I learned and watched how Angel Cordero Jr. intimidated and rode not just his horse, but yours too. I saw him play games with other riders, telling them you better go for that hole now before I do, or get off that rail or you’ll go over it. I saw who was gun-shy, and who wasn’t and it made me a better race watcher, and handicapper, not just with jockeys, but with horses too.

When a jockey becomes great, especially a young one, because some do get great when they are older, there comes a point where you can watch them actually get better with each ride. It’s a special time in their careers, and as a student of the game, an avid race watcher and fan, it is really exciting and fun to watch that development. Irad Ortiz Jr. and his younger brother Jose are at that point now.

Irad, humble, gracious, and on top of the world
Irad, humble, gracious, and on top of the world

While the Ortiz brothers have both risen to the top of the game, with Irad leading the way as he is slightly older and has a bit of a head start, Jose has bridged the gap and together they are without any doubt two of the best riders in the game. The best part though, at least right now, is while they each excel at their craft, and are at the summit of The Sport of Kings, each one gets better with every mount and every day. You can watch them hone their skills, timing, instincts, and athletic ability on a horse closer to sheer perfection every day, and with each mount they ride. It’s a zone developing riders get into, and if you are tuned into it, and recognize it, it’s great to watch.

There have been brothers who have ridden together and against each other throughout the history of our great game. I don’t think there has ever been a pair that each rose from the apprentice ranks, to the pinnacle of the sport so close together and in such meteoric fashion. The Ortiz brothers went from rising star bug boys, to dominating arguably the toughest circuit and colony in the country and maybe the world. That’s no small feat, nor easy task. It takes hard work, talent, dedication, the right disposition, and some outside help. Owners and trainers have to believe in you, you need a good agent, and you have to produce when given your opportunities.

Irad winning his first Classic, The Belmont Stakes
Irad winning his first Classic, The Belmont Stakes photo courtesy NYRA photo/Joe Labozzetta

It’s no secret I have been impressed with the development of these two fine riders for a while. After Irad’s ride on Creator in The Belmont, which was flawless, I decided to write about the brothers, their agents and the unique relationship they all share. It’s also great for the game to have two deserving stars, accompanied by two fine agents, both equally deserving in their own unique ways.

Many in the racing game, especially some fans and those on the outside looking in, don’t realize how tough it is to be a jockey’s agent. It’s really tough when you don’t have a top rider, and have to beg for mounts, or work 10 horses for a trainer hoping they name you on one. It’s tough to work a horse, feel they will run well, and see another rider named when the overnight comes out. This is routine for the many hard working agents without top riders. They have to keep their jock happy at the same time, which is not easy when you are hardly in the program or not winning. Trainers get mad at you, other agents get mad at you, the racing secretary gets mad at you, other riders and agents get mad at you, and you still need to be at the barn around 5:30 am every day with a smile.

A big misconception is it gets easier when you work your way up to having a top or in demand rider. It doesn’t, it just changes into a whole new kind of tough. Now you wear a bullseye. Everyone watches every move you make, everyone wants your jock, other trainers, other agents, and you need to juggle it all, keep everyone happy, and perhaps most importantly and difficult, be right about the mounts you choose. A lot.

Jose getting it done
Jose getting it done photo courtesy of NYRA photo/Joe Labozzetta

Jose Ortiz’s agent Jimmy Riccio has paid his dues and comes from good stock. Nothing was handed to him, and he deserves to be in the enviable position he is. He grew up around the game. I remember when I was a kid hanging around my Dad’s window in The Clubhouse at Belmont, Jimmy’s father, who owned horses at the time with Pete Ferriola, would bet with him. They liked each other and my Dad always referred to him as a gentleman, and good guy. My Dad did not use those terms loosely, and Mr. Riccio always made a point to smile and nod hello at me, who was just a kid. He was a sharp owner, with a sharp trainer and they had a lot of success. Young Jimmy as a boy, was exposed to that and developed his passion and love for the game. He channeled it towards becoming an agent. Watching the success his Dad enjoyed, and experiencing the thrill of winning in our game hooked him. He said the success they had with Poor but Honest, a Nasty and Bold gelding his Dad owned with Vincent Scudari, really hooked him. “If there was one horse that really got me into it more than the others, it was Poor but Honest”.

Jose takes The Grade 1 Mother Goose on Off The Tracks
Jose takes The Grade 1 Mother Goose on Off The Tracks

Despite his Dad being an owner Jimmy was not simply given a rider like Jose Ortiz. He paid his dues and worked his way up the ranks and earned his respect. He learned firsthand what going out 5:30 am and scrounging for mounts or even horses to work was like. He worked for Nick Santagata , Julian Pimental at Monmouth and The Meadowlands, CC Lopez, and even Edgar Prado towards the latter stages of his career. All capable journeyman riders, but far cries from the budding superstar he represents today, Jose Ortiz. Sure Edgar was once on top, or at least close to it, but this game is what have you done for me this week, not lately, and Edgar was already slowing down in his career when he and Jimmy worked together. Nothing was handed to Jimmy, he earned it and worked for it the hard way, which is nice to see in any sport or in anyone’s career. More importantly, he’s handling it well, not just the success and pressure, but the production. He’s doing his part to advance Jose. He has worked his passion for the game into a career as one of the top agents. Top of the world.

Steve Rushing, Irad Ortiz Jr.’s agent paid his dues as well. His entry into the agent game was as rough as any and will be with him forever. At 22 years old, Steve was an exercise rider and jockey’s valet at Rockingham Park, a “fair” like track with a rough reputation. They ran primarily cheaper races and it was a win at all costs atmosphere. It had to be for some of those smaller outfits to survive. While there, Steve worked for and became friends with rider Gary Donahue. Fate is a cruel and tricky thing at times. Who knows, Gary may have even been Steve’s first great rider. Fate robbed us of ever knowing. Love, friendship, passion, and dedication helped fate fail in ruining the lives of Steve and Gary, although we would be hard pressed to argue it did not try.

Shortly after taking his friend Gary Donahue’s book, and becoming an agent, tragedy struck. Gary was injured in a spill at Suffolk Downs. It was 1986, and the spill left Gary paralyzed, and Steve beyond devastated. Steve understandably quit being an agent and walked away. He did not abandon his friend; however, and the two remained close, and still are today. It was Gary, and Steve’s determination and drive, that helped Steve get back into the game. Had it not been for Gary’s encouragement, Steve may have never returned. Gary not only refused to let tragedy ruin the life of Steve, but himself as well. He’s an inspiration. He plays wheelchair tennis, and is actually world ranked in it. He skis, is a motivational speaker, and teaches young riders.

Once Steve got back into the game, things moved quickly. He worked his way up to representing Edgar Prado in Maryland when Edgar was king there. This would help immensely when handling a top rider on a bigger circuit years later. Steve went to New York temporarily when John Kimmel asked him and Edgar to pinch hit for his then regular rider Richard Migliore, who was injured. Ultimately this made Edgar decide to stay in New York regularly. Steve did not want to move his family at the time and remained in Maryland where he represented Ramon Dominquez. Again, together they dominated the Maryland circuit. When Ramon decided to go to New York, Steve couldn’t say no, family circumstances were different, and they hit the big stage together.

Steve and Ramon reached the highest highs in New York. Leading rider status. It looked as if things would stay that way a long time. Cruel fate reared it’s ugly head again and Ramon suffered a career ending head injury in a spill. This was an all too familiar nightmare for Steve but he was better equipped to deal with it if such a frame of mind actually exists. He took the book of Cornelio Velasquez, a longtime New York journeyman and was doing okay, but not how he did when dominating Maryland with Edgar and dominating Maryland and New York with Ramon. That would change.

Steve got a call from Irad Ortiz Jr. asking him to take his book. He immediately went to Cornelio and discussed the opportunity. Cornelio, a professional and journeyman approaching the winding down stage of his career, told Steve he had to go with it. He took Irad’s book. Top of the world.

Now that we know how the teams were formed we can move on to the riders. There are a lot of outstanding statistics the Ortiz brothers have. We’ll look at some, and they will be impressive. I prefer to focus on the intangibles. The things I see and look at from those days watching from the hole in the fence at The Big A. The things a lot of people don’t see, or don’t realize how much of a difference they make.

The brothers
” It’s between the brothers Kay” (inside joke)

I spoke to the Ortiz brothers about their careers and this article. Two things hit you immediately when talking with them. First, they are nice, humble, genuine young men, both cognizant and appreciative of the position they are in. You can’t help but be happy for their success and root for them. Secondly, although young, they know and understand the game. They are both wiser than their years. Having great agents who care about them shows, as does the mentoring of people like Angel Cordero Jr. and Johnny Velasquez. These young men have learned a lot, and it is evident in their daily riding. Neither makes many mistakes, and both almost always put their mount in a position to win if the horse has it. That’s a benchmark of a great rider. No mistakes, and put your horse in position to win if they can. It hardly stops there with these two though.

We’ll start with Irad, as he is slightly older and has a head start on his brother. Irad told me he wanted to be a rider since he was very young and growing up in Puerto Rico. He and Jose grew up around horses. His grandfather and uncle were both jockeys. Irad graduated Escuela Vocacional Hipica Jockey School in Puerto Rico before coming to New York in 2011. He made the transition from star apprentice to star journeyman smooth as silk. He really never hit that lull that even great riders sometimes do when they lose their bug and weight allowance. Irad just kept on winning and getting better.

Irad on Creator, looking like Angel on Seattle Slew
Irad on Creator, looking like Angel on Seattle Slew photo courtesy NYRA photo/Joe Labozzetta

Before we talk about his stats and resume, let’s look at some more astute observations. Irad reminds me of Cordero in his prime. He is a dominator. A force on the track. He gets down low and goes to work fearlessly and you can see in his every movement his desire to beat who he is riding against, which at times is his brother. We’ll get to Jose shortly. Irad has no weakness, just like Angel didn’t, he can beat you on the lead, or beat you from off the pace. He is excellent at judging if he has enough horse to go around everyone turning for home, or if he has to wait and find or even make a hole to save some ground. He does these things like someone who has been riding many more years than he has. Jerry Bailey rode that way, but he was 15 years or more into his career when it started. Irad is about 5 years in. That’s impressive.

The other thing that jumps out, and a savvy bettor can capitalize on this, and it is also a stat you will not find in any book, when Irad gets a bad trip, or makes a wrong decision that costs him a race, which does not happen often, but is part of the game, look out. Put it in your stable mail, as he will remember and ride with a vengeance next time and rest assured he’ll correct whatever went wrong. It’s fun to watch.

I asked Irad about this and what he does to give him an advantage over his competitors. First off, he studies the Form before he rides. He knows his horse, and the others. He also remembers things about horses he has ridden before. Who likes or doesn’t like it inside or outside, things like that. When the race starts I ride my horse but watch the others too, I see who looks strong and who doesn’t, I judge who I have to beat. These are the kind of things you expect of seasoned veterans not riders 5 years into their careers.

Tough job, but someone has to do it. Irad talking with Kiaren McLaughlin
Tough job, but someone has to do it. Irad talking with Kiaren McLaughlin

Irad has a hard time choosing his biggest or favorite victory. He’ll always remember that first Grade 1 at Saratoga with Questing but his first Breeders’ Cup with Lady Eli was just so special. Not only because it was his first Breeders’ Cup, but because he loves Lady Eli so much and is so thankful for the chance to ride her. Obviously The Belmont, his first classic aboard Creator is right up there. After all it’s The Belmont and those are the two that stand out. Irad’s goals are twofold. He definitely wants to be leading rider, and is willing to work in the mornings and ride as many as it takes to achieve that goal. He also has his sights set on the biggest races in the country and the world too. He’s been to England and Japan and wants to ride the best against the best. He’s ready and he knows it but not in a cocky way. I’d call it hungry. He wants to win.

Top of the world

Personally I thought Irad’s ride on Creator in The Belmont won him the race, and is one of the best Belmont rides I’ve seen. I put it up there with Cordero on Bold Forbes, George Martens on Summing, and Laffit Pincay on Caveat. It definitely goes in the future Past the Wire’s Simply the Best part 3 where I memorialize and include videos of the best rides of all time. Accordingly, you can understand why I loved discussing the race with Irad, who is informative and was keenly aware of what was going on in the race.

Belmont winner Creator and irad Ortiz Jr.
Belmont winner Creator and Irad Ortiz Jr.

When they broke, Creator was on the outside and Irad started to ease him to the inside. He almost got all the way over but he had to slow down and ease behind a horse and did so expertly, without checking or taking a hold, he just eased through it with “’touch”. The really crafty part came when Creator caught the field turning for home and Irad had to decide to go around, which had he done he finishes second, or wait and find a hole or seam. He waited but again didn’t check or steady. He went outside just enough to avoid Governor Malibu who was stopping in front of him and waited for his spot. If he sits behind Governor Malibu he doesn’t win the race. He waited for the hole and as soon as a seam opened he went through and went to work. Not since Angel Cordero Jr. on Seattle Slew have we seen such a seat on a horse as Irad and Creator came down the stretch. ” When we were turning for home it was instinct, if I think too long the hole can close or something can happen, I just see and react”

Irad already has two Breeders’ Cup wins, Lady Eli in The Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2014, and Stephanie’s Kitten in The Filly and Mare Turf in 2015. He also has a second on Lady Shipman in The Turf Sprint in 2015.

So far in 2016 Irad is padding the Stakes resume;

  • The Belmont Stakes G1 on Creator
  • The New York Stakes G2 on Dacita
  • The Gazelle G2 on Lewis Bay
  • The American Turf G2 on Camelot Kitten
  • The Gotham G3 on Shagaf
  • The Jerome G3 on Flexibility
  • The Penine Ridge G3 on Camelot Kitten
  • The Beaugay G3 on Camelot Kitten

His recent career stats stack up with the best of them for a 5-6 year rider.

  • Starts-7402
  • Wins-1261
  • Seconds-1125
  • Thirds 1096
  • Earnings-$80,162,806
  • Average Earnings per Start-$10,830

Lofty to say the least – and these are not up to date. Irad rides for the best barns in the game. He’s as in demand as any rider in the country.

Family off the track, competitors on the track
Family off the track, competitors on the track

The Ortiz brothers are close. They spend time together and even talk horses when something happens in a race that warrants it. Other than that they are just two close brothers who fiercely compete on the track, but root for each other when not in competition. When in a race, they ride against each other as aggressively as they do against anyone else, and it is apparent when you watch them.

Jose Ortiz, multiple win days came fast
Jose Ortiz, multiple win days came fast

Jose came over from Puerto Rico in 2012, a year after Irad. He was young, green, and an apprentice. Hhe had gone to the same Jockey School, and also wanted to be a rider since he was very young. He started at Parx but quickly moved to New York. Initially, he was a bit behind his brother in development, but he closed the gap quickly and recently erased it with both the brothers establishing themselves as two of the best in the country.

Jose four off the floor
Jose four off the floor

It was as exciting to watch Jose develop as it was Irad. At first the thought was how can he be as good? It was as if Jose was determined he could be and wanted to prove it from the beginning. He is known for his work ethic and getting on a lot of horses in the morning. His agent told me he will get on as many as he can or he sets him up with. Just this week alone, while enjoying top success in New York he went to Finger Lakes to ride a stake for Linda Rice on a dark day at Belmont. Yesterday while Belmont was dark he was at Delaware winning the stake for Shug McGaughey.

Jose winning another
Jose winning another photo courtesy NYRA photo/Joe Labozzetta

Jose possesses the same attributes Irad does on the back of a racehorse. It is uncanny how they both correct any issue with a horse they rode that could have won or run better. Jose is deadly on the lead, and has those hands the good speed riders do, where they just let them lope along and always have more left in the tank than you think. Sort of like Pat Day used to do. When it comes time to race ride Jose can get down with anyone in the game. He is aggressive, tough, and will go through any hole. He has the same great instincts as his brother. He studies the Form, and learns the nuances of the horses he rides both in the morning and afternoon.

I asked Jose about his favorite horses and wins, and like Irad, he got his first Grade 1 at Saratoga aboard Strong Mandate in The Hopeful, for none other than Wayne Lukas on Wayne’s 78th birthday. Jose won’t forget that one, but the big ones are mounting up as fast as Irad’s. He loved La Verdad who gave her all every time she went out to run. Like Irad, Jose wants to be leading rider, but also ride the biggest races and win them. With these two brothers being so talented, having such strong work ethics, and being so competitive, we should see a lot of interesting all in the family jockey races for leading rider in New York for years to come.

Jose on Ironicus
Jose on Ironicus

Jose is already riding horses of the caliber Irad does. That gap has closed. He’s riding horses like Ironicus, Carrumba, Unified, all potential stars. Then you have the ones that most people don’t know how good they are yet, like Bombs Away. What impressed me a lot when talking to Jose was his awareness of his rides. Twice he corrected me, once when I said mistakenly La Verdad won a Grade 1, he politely pointed out it was a Grade 2, and when I again erred with Strong Mandate thinking The Hopeful was not a Grade 1 anymore. Jose also knew that immediately it was, but I guess he should have on that one, it was his first. I should have known both.

Jose is rattling off Graded Stakes wins in 2016 like it’s routine. He’s riding for the best outfits. This year alone he’s won;

  • The Mother Goose G1 on Off the Tracks
  • The Sheepshead Bay G2 on Sea Calisi
  • The Peter Pan G2 on Unified
  • The Jaipur G3 on Pure Sensation
  • The Bay Shore G3 on Unified
  • The Excelsior G3 on Kid Cruz
  • The Top Flight G3 on Carrumba
  • The Distaff G3 on Paulassilverlining
  • The Westchester G3 on Anchor Down
  • The Fort Marcy G3 on Ironicus
  • The Vagrancy G3 on Paulassilverlining
Jose race riding
Jose race riding photo courtesy NYRA photo/Joe Labozzetta

Last year he took The Grade 1 Carter on Dad’s Caps, The Grade 2 Gallant Bloom on La Verdad, and plenty of others. As I said, the stats are impressive but it’s the intangibles that set these two apart. Jose finished second in The Breeders’ Cup filly and mare sprint in 2015 on La Verdad and third in The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Upstart in 2014. Shug McGaughey, Chad Brown, Todd Pletcher, Christophe Clement, Linda Rice, Jimmy Jerkens, Steve Asmussen are among his clients. A tribute to him, his talent, and Jimmy Riccio his agent. This is not the resume of a 4-5-year rider, and it is hardly complete, just select highlights. It’s the resume of one of the best, and the best is yet to come.

Jose’s stats are lofty as well. They certainly stack up with any 4-5 year rider.

  • Starts-5445
  • Wins-975
  • Seconds-708
  • Earnings-$59,440,228
  • Average Earnings per Start-$10,916

Irad Ortiz Jr. and Steve Rushing, and his brother Jose Ortiz and Jimmy Riccio are nothing short of Dream Teams. The two agents have earned their way from begging for mounts, to selecting the best prospects, riding the most winners, helping the best barns find the best spots for their horses, and getting their riders on live horses every day. All the while with  bullseyes on their backs and under the watch of every agent that wants to step into their place. They have to work hard, stay sharp, and be right. As for Irad and Jose, the brothers have reached the highest highs of The Sport of Kings. They have done it fast and early in their careers. It was not handed to them as it was not handed to their agents. Yes, the talent has to be there, and we know it is, but that isn’t enough. Maturity, discipline, desire, hunger, fearlessness, instincts, and understanding of our great game has to be there also. One of the safest bets in racing is Irad and Jose along with Steve and Jimmy are in for a long, fun, competitive ride at the top of the world. It couldn’t happen to a nicer, more deserving group. I have no doubt these two jockeys will dominate New York racing and racing across the country for years to come. They will rule the track, watch and see….

A special thanks to Irad, Jose, Steve, and Jimmy for speaking with me for this article. It was great to work with all of you. Continued success. Irad and Jose, stay safe, keep winning.

Photographs courtesy of NYRA photo/Joe Labozzetta, Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz Jr.

High Five

Past the Wire for telling anyone who’d listen bet the speed horses back from Belmont Stakes Day. We said it in Tracking Trips, and we said it in our article To B or not to B. So far they are two for two, with a little help from Jose Ortiz on Off the Tracks taking The Grade 1 Mother Goose. The other was Mrazek who took The Thor’s Echo at Santa Anita. They’ll be many more.

Low Five

NYRA, I love you but between the inconsistent steward rulings, and now posting the wrong order of finish in a small field thus paying two superfectas, come on guys, you deserve this one.

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Jon Stettin

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