Ortiz brothers thriving at Aqueduct; Shagaf passes Gotham test in good fashion
BY DICK POWELL
Winter racing has not been bad at Aqueduct this year with fewer cancellations and much better weather. The four-day-a-week schedule for the first three months of 2016 have enabled field sizes to maintain and scheduled closures at Parx Racing and Laurel have also helped.
Purses at Aqueduct are extremely high; especially when compared to Gulfstream Park, Fair Grounds and Tampa Bay Downs. The only place where they are running for more money is at Oaklawn Park which continues to increase the daily purse structure as the meet goes on.
One day at Gulfstream Park, I counted 39 individual jockeys named to ride. At Aqueduct, it’s about half that but to their credit the Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, have stayed north for most of the winter and their bank accounts have benefitted.
Going into Thursday’s races, Irad has 94 winners at Aqueduct and Jose has 93. They have been a pleasure to watch and their residence in New York this winter has been an added bonus. Yes, Aqueduct does not have turf racing this time of year but it didn’t hurt Irad, who became one of America’s top turf riders last year after racing in New York over the winter. And Jose just keeps getting better and better over it.
Going long, Irad has become the second coming of Ramon Dominguez. He gets his horses into winning positions, finds some time to relax, then finishes full of run. When you see him looming boldly on the far turn of a two-turn route, the race is as good as over. BRIS statistics show that he wins 22% with route mounts so his sense of pace will certainly carry over to the turf season.
Jose can usually be found at the head of the pace in sprint races. He is expert at getting out of the starting gate and gets his horses involved early even when they have not shown much speed in the past. Rarely does he miss the break and if he’s not on the lead, he’s the first to make a move. He wins an amazing 23% of his sprint races and takes advantage of the prevailing speed bias of 68% going six furlongs.
A real revelation has been Kendrick Carmouche, who has 75 wins so far. Part of the Carmouche riding clan from Louisiana, he has shown on a daily basis that his game has no weakness. He is winning with 18% of his sprint mounts this year and 20% with his route mounts.
Carmouche’s last 348 route mounts show a healthy flat-bet profit and overall, he is almost breaking even with 1,168 mounts in the past 14 months. Trainers like Bruce Levine are using him since he wants his trainees to get involved early and Carmouche fits them to perfection.
Since 2016 began, Irad Ortiz Jr. is leading America in money earned, Jose Ortiz is third and Kendrick Carmouche is fourth. Money makes the horse go round and even though they have to go out onto the track bundled up with layers of high-tech clothes, the Aqueduct purses are worth it.
Last Saturday was the $400,000 Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct and Chad Brown’s SHAGAF (Bernardini) was a handy winner. It’s always tough to gauge inner dirt track stakes winners since no matter how good they looked, there might be questions about who they beat but this colt looked terrific.
On a day when speed did extremely well, Irad Ortz Jr. kept Shagaf on the inside, the best part of the track, and waited to the stretch before tipping out and going after the leaders. If he would have gone gate to wire I would be less impressed, but he did everything right in his two-turn debut and bellied down to win by 1 ¼ lengths in the time of 1:45.90.
Shagaf earned a BRIS Speed rating of 94 and his next start will be the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1) on the main track on April 9. He should get a lot out of the Gotham and move forward. What impressed me is that he is now three for three on three different dirt tracks and has enough tactical speed to stay out of severe traffic problems. His pedigree says he will only get better with more distance so the sky is the limit for this Shadwell Farm home-bred.
The only real negative from Shagaf’s win in the Gotham was his bearing out a bit in the stretch. It could be just immaturity racing in new surroundings, it could be he was getting tired or it could be a sign of some kind of physical issue that could be developing. I will be curious to see how much work he does between the Gotham and the Wood.