HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—To win the biggest race of his career, trainer John Ortiz will have to topple one of the biggest names in Thoroughbred history.
Ortiz will send out the consistent Barber Road in Saturday’s $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1), which is Oaklawn’s fourth and final points race for the Kentucky Derby. The 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby also attracted star filly Secret Oath, who is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, 86, a four-time Kentucky Derby winner and member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Ortiz was just 13 when Lukas, a former high school basketball coach, captured his fourth Kentucky Derby in 1999, the same year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. A former assistant to Kellyn Gorder, Ortiz, 36, struck out on his own in 2016 and is seeking his first Kentucky Derby starter.
“It’s fun to run against Wayne Lukas – period,” Ortiz said following Barber Road’s final work for the Arkansas Derby Sunday morning at Oaklawn. “I turned to the ‘Coach’ one time with the first stakes filly that I had. Her name was Sully’s Dream and I was actually on her. He was sitting on his pony and we were actually standing by the gate here at Oaklawn. I looked at him and said, ‘Coach, I know we don’t talk much and I’m just new, but I’ve got a little conflict.’”
Ortiz said he wasn’t sure whether to run Sully’s Dream in an allowance race or the $50,000 Houston Distaff Stakes in January 2018 at Sam Houston. Ortiz said he believed Sully’s Dream could win the Houston Distaff, but she also still had an allowance condition. Reaching this fork in the road, Ortiz asked Lukas to point him in the right direction.
“He goes, ‘Johnny, go with your heart,’” Ortiz said. “He’s like, ‘I’ve won more stakes races that I shouldn’t have been in than the ones I point to.’ Guess what? I turned around and won that race.”
Sully’s Dream provided Ortiz with his first career stakes victory. Four years later, Barber Road is trying to give Ortiz his biggest career stakes victory in the Arkansas Derby, which highlights Saturday’s 13-race card. The Arkansas Derby will go as the 12thrace, with probable post 6:35 p.m. (Central). First post is noon. Weather permitting, the infield will be open.
The Arkansas Derby will offer 170 points (100-40-20-10, respectively) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. While Secret Oath is 3 for 3 at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting (winning her races against 3-year-old fillies, including two stakes, by a combined 23 lengths), Barber Road is still seeking a breakthrough victory.
Barber Road finished second in the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at 1 mile Jan. 1 and $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 29 and third in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 26. Barber Road collected 18 points for those finishes and ranks 20th on Kentucky Derby leaderboard, according to Churchill Downs. A top three finish in the Arkansas Derby likely would secure Barber Road a spot in the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 starters.
“It’s just exciting to be in this position for the first time,” said Ortiz, who trains Barber Road for former Walmart executive William Simon. “I’m pumped. It’s crazy.”
Ortiz, even without the Barber Road storyline, continues to author a spectacular 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting. He was tied for third in victories (22) and ranked third in purse earnings ($1,904,226) through Sunday, Day 47 of the scheduled 66-day live season.
Remarkably, 15 of Ortiz’s victories have come in races worth $100,000 or more, highlighted by the $150,000 Nodouble Breeders’ Stakes for Arkansas-bred sprinters March 5 with Gar Hole, who became the meet’s first four-time winner. The Nodouble marked the first career Oaklawn stakes victory for Ortiz after five runner-up finishes during the 2021 and 2021-2022 meetings.
Ortiz already has shattered his previous single-season Oaklawn bests – 15 victories and $721,658 in purse earnings – set last year. In addition to the Nodouble, Ortiz runners have captured 14 six-figure allowance races, a $90,000 maiden special weights race and two $84,000 maiden special weights events.
“Our goal was to win one race every weekend and we’ve been very blessed to have multiple wins,” Ortiz said. “Our goal was to win a stakes at the meet this year and we finally got that off the bucket list and to win 20 races. Now, we’re at 22 for the meet. I have a great team.”
Ortiz’s stable, roughly 60 horses, is split between Oaklawn and The Thoroughbred Training Center, which is near his home in Lexington, Ky. Ortiz normally makes the 9 ½-hour drive each week, leaving after Sunday’s final race at Oaklawn and arriving home early Monday morning. Ortiz then returns early Friday to Hot Springs for a new race week.
“This is a team effort, from Kentucky to Arkansas,” Ortiz said.
The projected Arkansas Derby field from the rail out:
1. Kavod, Mitchell Murrill to ride, 122 pounds, 15-1
2. Chasing Time, Jose Lezcano, 119, 12-1
3. Barber Road, Reylu Gutierrez, 119, 8-1
4. Doppelganger, John Velazquez, 119, 3-1
5. Un Ojo, Ramon Vazquez, 122, 6-1
6. Secret Oath, Luis Contreras, 117, 5-2
7. Ben Diesel, Jon Court, 119, 15-1
8. Cyberknife, Florent Geroux, 119, 8-1
9. We the People, Flavien Prat, 119, 7-2
Lukas won the 1984 Arkansas Derby with a filly, Althea, and again in 1985 with Tank’s Prospect.
Photo of Barber Road working in company by Coady Photography.
Oaklawn Barn Note by Robert Yates