by Bob Ehalt
There’s no doubt that 2016 generated a huge array of unforgettable moments that covered one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.
For 23-year-old jockey Jose Ortiz, when he reflects on his life both on and away from the racetrack, there will always be a warm feeling for last year.
The first sign that it could indeed be a special time came in the summer, when he recorded his first riding title at Saratoga. Ortiz won 65 races, grabbing the crown that belonged to his older brother, Irad Ortiz Jr., in 2015.
As the year progressed into the fall and winter, the wins continued to grow in a prodigious manner.
And when it was all over, Jose Ortiz put a bow on an unforgettable year. He not only led all riders in wins at New York Racing Association tracks – once again bringing to an end the reign of his elder sibling, who was the NYRA champion in 2014 and 2015 – he also finished with more wins than any other jockey in North America (351).
Underscoring the impact of those prestigious achievements, he was one of three finalists for the Eclipse Award as the nation’s most outstanding rider – a prize that went to the New York-based Javier Castellano for a fourth straight year.
“I would have loved to win the Eclipse Award, but it was great to be among the final three with a Hall of Famer like Mike Smith and a future Hall of Famer in Javier,” said Ortiz, who finished third behind Castellano and Smith. “I’ll keep working hard until I win it.”
Add in his marriage to fellow jockey Taylor Rice and the news that their daughter will be born in July, and it was a year that unfolded like a dream come true.
“So many good things happened to me,” he said. “I thank God my wife, Taylor, handled everything for the wedding. I was able to keep riding and win those titles because she took care of me. There was no pressure on me. I was able to focus on riding.”
While that keen focus enabled him to reach new heights in 2016, success was hardly something new for Ortiz. Born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, where he attended the Escuela Vocacional Hipica riding school (which also produced New York riders John Velazquez and Manny Franco), he moved to the United States in 2012. Later that year he was victorious in his first New York race and in 2013, while he was an apprentice, he won 224 races. The wins grew to 234 in 2014 and 244 in 2015 as he quickly established himself as rising star on the NYRA circuit.
Determined to continue improving his skills, Ortiz worked tirelessly to reach the top of the New York and national standings in 2016. Even on days off, he would spend the morning working horses and would then travel to out-of-town tracks for a few rides. Propelled by that admirable work ethic, Ortiz led all riders with 1,563 starts last year and was third nationally with career-best earnings of $22,925,822.
“There was a lot of hard work by me and my agent (Jim Riccio Jr.), but experience kicked in last year,” he said. “I’ve been riding for five years and everything fell into place. I had good horsemen supporting me, and if you don’t ride good horses, you can be the best jockey in the world and you’ll struggle.”
Reflective of the leading New York trainers who put Ortiz on their horses, he won 2016 Grade 1 stakes for both Chad Brown (the Hopeful with Practical Joke) and Todd Pletcher (the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic with Ectot and Mother Goose with Off the Tracks) as well as graded stakes for Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement and Linda Rice.
“I’ve been riding Jose since he was an apprentice,” said Linda Rice, the aunt of Jose’s wife. “He had natural ability and we had a lot of success right off the bat. But since he’s turned into a journeyman, he’s really matured as a rider. He’s always been a very good speed rider but in the last year and a half, he’s not one dimensional. He’s a top rider period. He sees the race well. He’s extremely athletic and puts his horses in good position. He makes very few mistakes.”
Jose has needed every bit of those skills in his friendly rivalry with his older brother. Born about 14 months before Jose, Irad made a huge splash three years after moving to the United States when he won the 2014 NYRA riding title, but now the two young siblings are both at the top of the New York riding colony, pushing each other to improve through their competitive nature.
“Irad won the New York title the last two years, and being competitive I really wanted to win it. I cared about it and paid attention to it,” Jose said.
While both Ortiz brothers rose to prominence in their profession at a such an early age, Linda Rice believes neither of them have taken anything for granted in their continued pursuit of excellence.
“Jose and Irad had a great upbringing,” she said. “Their parents (Irad Ortiz and Vilma Morales Adomo) taught them to appreciate everything that’s come their way. They are both very competitive and I’m sure that sibling competition has been good for both of them.”
After posting his first Breeders’ Cup win last year when Oscar Performance captured the BC Juvenile Turf, Jose’s next hurdle involves the Triple Crown. Unlike Irad, who won last year’s Belmont Stakes with Creator, Jose has little to show for a handful of rides in the three legs of the series. He’s ridden in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes twice, with Samraat’s fifth in the 2014 Derby his best finish.
“I’ve ridden in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont and I want to get back there,” he said. “I’m looking for horses to ride in the prep races and I’m hoping to find one who will give me a good chance of winning a Triple Crown race.”
It’s a lofty goal, but after a career year in 2016, there’s no reason to believe that – or anything else - is out of reach for Jose Ortiz.