Jose Ortiz is riding his way to an Eclipse Award
by Dick Powell
Jose Ortiz is a man on a mission and is finishing up 2016 so strong that he has now inserted himself into the conversation for the Eclipse Award for leading rider. He has been that good.
Jose started out his career in the shadow of his brother, Irad, but what originally caught my eye was his uncanny ability to gun to the front. He was a terrific gate rider so, naturally, did great in sprint races.
Irad was better going long, and last year trainer Chad Brown called him the best turf rider in America. But rather than being typecast as a sprint specialist, Jose has upped his game and is now every bit as good going long and on the turf.
In 2016, Jose Ortiz is winning 25% going long where as last year at this time he was winning 20%. But it is on turf where Jose has made up the most ground and now has more total wins than any rider in America.
Last year, Jose was winning with 13% of his turf mounts. This year, he is up to 19% on the turf and has shown a flat-bet profit for over 550 turf rides. And he has achieved this without having a consistent role with the biggest stables in America.
And this might have been one of the keys to his success. First, Jose is a great gate rider and often sends his horses to be prominently placed, even in long-distance turf races. Second, many of his rivals in New York have become experts on wrestling moves like the full-nelson, half-nelson, Boston Crab, etc. – any method to strangle a horse. And third, by riding for a wide variety of outfits that are happy to have him aboard, he might have more free rein than if he rode for the big ones who have a habit of dropping horses off the pace.
His ride on ECTOT (Hurricane Run) in this year’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) was classic. On a yielding turf course at Belmont Park, Jose sent the 9-1 longshot to the lead and dared the field to catch him. It wasn’t like Seamie Heffernan’s ride on HIGHLAND REEL (Galileo) where he opened up a huge, insurmountable lead but Jose was in charge every step of the way and cruised to an easy win over 1-5 favorite FLINTSHIRE (Dansili). Same goes for his ride aboard OSCAR PERFORMANCE (Kitten’s Joy) in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) where he used his ability to break well from the gate and was able to overcome post 13.
Add it all up and Jose Ortiz has become one of America’s best riders and it is only a matter of time before he starts getting business from the top stables. Shug McGaughey has been smart enough to use him on nearly all his good horses and Linda Rice has been there for him from the start, which makes sense since Linda has a lot of sprinters and nobody is better than getting them out of the gate.
But in a game that now sees three or four turf races a day on tracks that have one turf course, and five or six a day on tracks that have two turf courses (Belmont Park, Saratoga and Gulfstream Park), you have to ride well on the turf and Jose has become as good as anyone on it.
I have an Eclipse Award vote and I don’t make up my mind until the last second so I am not sure who I will vote for this year. But regardless of this year’s vote, it’s just a matter of time before Jose Ortiz wins one; as long as he stays aggressive and doesn’t learn to strangle horses out of the gate like so many do these days.