By Dick Powell
He might not be a household name, yet, but Irad Ortiz, Jr. is having a career year and has opened up a commanding eight-win lead over Javier Castellano despite riding 19 fewer horses. For those of us who got to watch Irad, and his brother Jose, all winter on the inner dirt track, it comes as no surprise.
The best way I can describe Irad Ortiz, Jr. is that he is the second coming of Ramon Dominguez. He has no weakness as he is successful going short or long, dirt or turf. In 2015, he is winning with 22% with his sprint mounts, 22% going long and 23% on the turf.
In the past, Johnny Velazquez had a major advantage at Saratoga since he rode first-call for Todd Pletcher, the leading trainer the past five years. Javier Castellano rode first-call for Chad Brown, who is knocking hard on Pletcher’s door for the trainers’ title.
With Velazquez hurt in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup, Castellano began to get more business from Pletcher so he had the best of both worlds for a while. But now, Irad Ortiz, Jr. is picking up many live mounts in big-money races from Brown and many more are to come. Ortiz, Jr. just turned 23 years old and is about to pass the 1,000 win mark at a ripe, young age.
With Irad Ortiz, Jr., you can count on a heady ride. He follows instructions, breaks his horses away from the gate cleanly, finds a spot to settle down in and finishes up as well as anyone. What I especially like about him at Saratoga is how he rides the inner turf course.
Ramon Dominguez would ride rings around the competition on the inner turf course. He would sit on the hedge as long as he could, patiently waiting for an opening, then explode through. But, if forced to go outside, he would lose as little ground and momentum as possible.
Whether on the inside or outside, Dominguez, and now Ortiz, Jr., cuts the corner better than anyone on the inner turf course. Race after race you see riders lose more ground than they should and by the time they get their horses going again, the leaders are too far in front to be caught. Not Irad Ortiz, Jr., who like Dominguez, is leaning in as far as he can to keep his horses from losing ground and momentum.
The native of Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico is carrying on a tradition of leading New York jockeys from Puerto Rico. First, there was Angel Cordero, Jr. Then came Johnny Velazquez. There are three young & talented riders now with Irad Ortiz, Jr., his younger brother Jose and 20YO Manny Franco, whose book, like Velazquez, is handled by Cordero.
The business statistics for the first 22 days of the Saratoga meet came out and they are extremely strong. All sources handle – bets on Saratoga races no matter where they were made – was up more than 17%. We have talked about the weird weather up here and the numbers bear it out.
Last Friday, there were looming thunderstorms in the area. Black clouds and thunder was about, but not at Saratoga. It rained so hard in Latham and Troy, New York that there were flood watches. The thunderstorms up at Lake George were so severe that trees came down causing power outages.
But the bad weather missed Saratoga. It’s like there has been an umbrella over the track and the immediate area. Last year, in the first 20 days of racing, there were 15 races taken off the turf. This year for the same time period, there have only been 7 races taken off the turf. The result is that field size has been a healthy 8.75 starters per race compared to 7.94 last year.
Incredibly, there were 102 dirt races run in 2015 compared to 101 turf races. So, with the abundance of turf racing, the rider that handles the turf the best has a big advantage in the jockey standings and Irad Ortiz, Jr. has been dominating on the lawn.
Through last Monday (August 17), Ortiz, Jr. has won 25 of his 79 mounts on the turf for an amazing 32% strike rate. Castellano, known to dominate the turf racing wherever he goes, has won 13 of his 86 mounts on the turf for a 15% strike rate. So the conditions that Castellano normally thrives under are now favoring Ortiz, Jr.
Through last Monday, the trainer standings are tied with Brown and Pletcher having 21 wins each. With three full weeks to go, they both should exceed the 28 wins that was enough to give Pletcher the trainer title last year.
One reason the trainer’s race is tied is the dominance on turf Brown has enjoyed. On the dirt, Pletcher has 16 wins to Brown’s 5. But on the turf, Brown has 16 wins to Pletcher’s 5. With an almost equal number of turf and dirt races run so far at the meet, Brown has a chance to break Pletcher’s five-year winning streak and Ortiz, Jr. can win his first, of what should be many Saratoga riding titles.