Year in Review: Who Was the Top Jockey in 2018?

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

December 19th, 2018

It seems like a simple question: Who was the top jockey in North America in 2018?

By basic metrics such as overall wins and earnings, the answer is similarly simple: Irad Ortiz, Jr. As of December 17th, the 26-year-old rider leads all jockeys by wins (336) and by purse earnings ($27,291,607), making him the favorite to be awarded the 2018 for Outstanding Jockey.

However, looking strictly at total wins and earnings fails to take into account other relevant factors such as win percentage, earnings per start, and victories at the highest level of the sport. With 1,564 rides (and counting) in 2018, Ortiz also rode more races than any other jockey in the nation, so all things being equal, you would expect him to come out on top by wins and earnings.

Actually, if you dig a little deeper into the numbers, you can make a case that veteran jockey is equally deserving of the Eclipse Award thanks to his remarkable success from far fewer opportunities than Ortiz.

Let’s use a variety of statistics to compare and contrast the 2018 achievements of Ortiz and Smith. We’ll also include Jose Ortiz and Joel Rosario, two other logical finalists for the Eclipse Award:

Total Purse Earnings

Irad Ortiz, Jr.: $27,291,607 Jose Ortiz: $26,475,209 Joel Rosario: $20,913,810 Mike Smith: $11,581,672

Earnings Per Start

Irad Ortiz, Jr.: $17,450 Jose Ortiz: $18,072 Joel Rosario: $23,793 Mike Smith: $49,284

Total Wins (Win Percentage)

Irad Ortiz, Jr.: 336 wins from 1,564 rides (21%) Jose Ortiz: 257 wins from 1,465 rides (18%) Joel Rosario: 153 wins from 879 rides (17%) Mike Smith: 52 wins from 235 rides (22%)

Graded Stakes Wins (Win Percentage)

Irad Ortiz, Jr.: 30 wins from 159 rides (19%) Jose Ortiz: 35 wins from 206 rides (17%) Joel Rosario: 24 wins from 121 rides (20%) Mike Smith: 21 wins from 91 rides (23%)

Grade 1 wins

Irad Ortiz, Jr.: 6 Jose Ortiz: 10 Joel Rosario: 11 Mike Smith: 12

Breeders’ Cup Wins

Irad Ortiz, Jr.: 2 Jose Ortiz: 0 Joel Rosario: 3 Mike Smith: 0

Classic Wins (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont)

Irad Ortiz, Jr.: 0 Jose Ortiz: 0 Joel Rosario: 0 Mike Smith: 3

(All data as of December 17th.)

Looking at the numbers this way, it’s clear that Mike Smith’s quality-over-quantity approach produced some striking results in 2018. Smith’s mounts have earned significantly more money per start than the mounts of any other North American-based rider (Joel Rosario ranks second), and he also compiled the highest win percentage among jockeys in contention for the Eclipse Award.

Smith was particularly strong in graded stakes races, where he scored at a 23% rate while winning a dozen Grade 1 events, the most of any jockey in North America. Four of those wins came aboard Triple Crown winner , and Smith's feat of sweeping the spring classics can’t be underestimated.

And I think it bears reiterated that Smith achieved all of this while riding a mere fraction as many horses as Irad Ortiz, Jose Ortiz, and Joel Rosario. Jockeys who employ such a pronounced quality-over-quantity approach to riding tend to get overlooked at the Eclipse Awards, but with a Triple Crown sweep capping Smith’s credentials, this might be the year for an exception.