Saratoga: Jockeys and trainers to watch for 2021

July 12th, 2021

Saratoga — named one of the world’s great sporting venues by Sports Illustrated — opens Thursday, July 15. 

Since the 2020 meet was conducted without spectators, anticipation is high heading into this marquee season.

Here are two matchups to watch during the 40-day meet that concludes Sept. 6.

Irad Ortiz vs. Jose Ortiz

The battle for top jockey has been a race between the Ortiz brothers — Irad and Jose — since 2015, when Irad earned his first Saratoga title. He repeated in 2018 and 2020, and Jose took the honors in 2016, 2017, and 2019. Last year, Irad won the meet-long battle for the title by one race.

Before heading to the Spa, they wrapped up a successful Belmont meet, where Jose edged Irad to win the riding title and topped all jockeys in earnings.

They are frontrunners in these categories for 2021, among all North American jockeys. Irad has the most wins (206) and purse earnings (more than $13 million). He topped both categories from 2018 to 2020, and he also had the most wins in 2017, the year Jose led in earnings. Jose beat all jockeys in wins in 2016. Jose earned the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey for 2017, and Irad receiving it from 2018 to 2020. This year, Jose ranks fifth by earnings and sixth in wins.

The Puerto Rican brothers are almost 14 months apart — Irad is 28 and Jose is 27. When they came to the U.S. mainland, Angel Cordero Jr. and John Velazquez, both native Puerto Ricans and Hall of Famers, served as their mentors. In 2014, they became the third pair of siblings to compete in the Kentucky Derby (G1).

In the past, the brothers have said that they are very competitive in everything and keep it all business on the track. Outside of racing, they have a very strong relationship.

“We have fun,” Irad said. “He wants the best for me, and I want the best for him.”

Todd Pletcher vs. Chad Brown

Todd Pletcher, the defending leading trainer, has won 13 Saratoga titles since 2002. His main competition in recent years has come from Chad Brown.

A native of nearby Mechanicville, Brown won Saratoga titles in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Brown’s 46 wins in 2018 is a single-meet record. Pletcher finished first in all the other years since 2010. The duo has dominated the meet in the past two years and earned the top two spots on the leaderboard for both wins and purse earnings.

“It doesn't get old, and it doesn't get easier," Pletcher said, after he won the title last season. "I've been fortunate to have won it that many times, but I still have a tremendous appreciation for how hard it is to do. I have a lot of great owners, and I'm grateful for the opportunities with so many good horses.”

Brown has led all North American trainers in earnings the past four years. This year, Pletcher ranks third in earnings, while Brown is in fourth, and Pletcher leads all trainers in graded stakes victories (20). Pletcher is the all-time leading trainer by earnings and ranks seventh by wins. He has won a record seven Eclipse Awards. Brown won four consecutive Eclipse Awards for outstanding trainer, from 2016 to 2019.

Pletcher, 54, a native of Texas, graduated from the University of Arizona, with a degree in animal science in 1989. He was an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and started his own stable in 1996. He will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 6.

Brown, 42, graduated from Cornell with a degree in animal science in 2001. He worked for Hall of Famers Shug McGaughey and Bobby Frankel before he went out on his own in 2007. He won his first Grade 1 when Zagora captured Saratoga’s Diana in 2011.

The action starts strong

Opening week at Saratoga will feature at least one stakes race each day.

Thursday’s highlights include the Quick Call S. (G3), a 5 1/2-furlong event for three-year-olds on turf, and the Schuylerville S. (G3), a six-furlong contest on dirt for two-year-old fillies.

Friday’s key race is the Forbidden Apple S. (G3), at one mile on turf for four-year-olds and older.

The Saturday features are the Diana S. (G1), a $500,000 event on turf for fillies and mares four years old and older, and the Sanford S. (G3) for two-year-olds on dirt.

The listed Coronation Cup, at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf for three-year-old fillies, closes out the weekend stakes action Sunday.