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Aqueduct: Father figure stands behind Ortiz brothers' success
One winter day at Aqueduct a decade ago, Efraim Rosa stood sentry in the jockeys’ room when Irad Ortiz, his old friend from Puerto Rico, came by with his two grandchildren, Irad Jr. and Jose. So close in age they looked like twins, the boys were still a few years short of their teens.
“These are going to be my jockeys!” exclaimed the grandfather, who had been a jockey in Puerto Rico but was now working on the backstretch in New York.
Rosa’s given name is Efraim, but nobody calls him anything but Pito. He is a peace officer for the New York Racing Association, that genteel name assigned to security guards. He was a horseman himself and in Puerto Rico once believed he would ride. Instead, at the New York tracks he willingly became an informal placement agency for newly arriving Latin riders. They would ask for Pito, following instructions provided in their homelands. Pito would find agents for the riders and translate for them until they got a handle on the new language.
Intrigued, Pito led the boys to an Equicizer, the mechanical horse that jockeys use to keep fit. He gave them tips – how you sit on a horse, how you hold the reins, how you keep your heels down. Puerto Rican riders must look good on a horse, he commented.
Pito was struck by what he saw.
“These kids are naturals,” Pito told his friend.
The elder Irad was surprised but pleased.
“They’re going to win races here, and they’re going to make it in New York,” Pito added.
Pito encouraged his friend to make sure that, when the time came, the boys attended riding school in Puerto Rico. The next three or four winters, the boys vacationed with their grandfather and returned to the track and that Equicizer, growing before Pito’s eyes.
“They had God-given ability,” Pito remembers. “It’s something that’s hard to explain. I knew the sky was the limit for them.”
Ten years later, in the same room, next to the same Equicizer, Pito, still the peace officer, proudly states: “They are the talk of New York. Even in Florida, they are talking about the Ortiz brothers.”
On this mid-March morning, Irad and Jose Ortiz are head-and-head for the riding title at Aqueduct with eight days left in the inner-track season. Their on-track battle for top honors had garnered all the headlines this winter. Irad, 20, has been riding in the States for only two years and Jose, 19, for one. In that time, Irad has won three Grade 1 races at Saratoga, two with champion filly Questing, and one of them was about to win his first major riding title. (Irad would edge his brother, 79-76.)
Sibling riders are nothing new in racing – names like McCarron, Maple, Castellano, Valenzuela, and Turcotte stand out – but, as a pair, the Ortiz brothers look to eclipse them all. Pito thinks they already have.
“They’re doing this in New York – the Mecca of racing – two riders fighting for the title,” Pito says, waving his program for effect. “I don’t remember ever seeing two brothers do that.”
A bond was forged that winter day 10 years ago. When the time came for Irad to come to New York, in 2011, Pito coordinated his move and got him an agent. He did the same for Jose the following year. They are family. The three of them share a small apartment near Belmont Park; Pito occupies one bedroom and the boys the other. Pito is 54 but as animated as someone half his age. Everything he has learned watching jockeys during four decades spent in racing, he has poured into Irad and Jose.
“I told their father these kids are going to be my project,” Pito says.
They lead a quiet life away from the track. Like Pito, the brothers care only about racing.
“They don’t want to go into the city or go out to restaurants,” Pito says. “We eat at home. We order out and pick it up. On the off days, I cook. They ask me, ‘Pito, what are you going to make for us today?’ ”
At home, if they aren’t watching races on the computer or studying the card for the next day, they’re often playing a horse-racing video game. Pito plays, too; he never passes up an opportunity to teach. He crowds them on the rail, making sure they catch dirt and can’t get out. Like in real life, Jose likes to be on the lead, in the clear, and Pito wants him to learn to come from behind, something Irad has learned. The boys howl at his race-riding tactics.
“They bust my chops at home,” he says smiling. He leans back in his chair and reflects. “They keep me alive. They keep me happy.”
When Pito was too young to get into El Comandante racetrack, now named Hipodromo Camarero for the local horse who won a historic 56 races in a row, older friends would smuggle him onto the backstretch in the trunks of their cars.
“When the trunk opens, you see the light and say, oh, thank god, I’m here!” he says, lifting his arms above his head to act it out. “I was 12. I remember the smell of the horses. I fell in love on the spot. I thought, this is me – horse racing.”
Besides his father, who left their family at a young age and loved to bet the horses, Pito was the only of three children who got into racing. He might have gotten into trouble off the track, but never on it. He was a stable hand, and for a time wanted to become a jockey. As he was about to turn 16, the jockeys at El Comandante went on strike and encouraged him to ride. But a building accident – Pito wouldn’t elaborate – nearly cost him his left hand. A nasty scar snakes from the top of his palm down to his wrist. He left the hospital without the desire to put himself through the rigors of riding.
“My jockey career was over before it started,” he says. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
He continued working at the track. One time in the late 1970s, Angel Cordero Jr., the pride of Puerto Rico, returned to ride a good horse named Amalie for the trainer who employed Pito. The teenage stable hand wouldn’t forget that day.
Before the decade was out, Pito left for the United States. He was 20 and not doing much in Puerto Rico, he says. He bid farewell to his neighbors, one of whom was Irad Ortiz. As Pito remembers, Irad’s sister told him: “You’ll come back tomorrow. You don’t know anybody there.”
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Pito alighted to Aqueduct and picked up where he had left off at El Comandante. Cordero had opened the way for Hispanic riders, but also backstretch workers in general. Pito soon befriended Cordero, who was reminded of the first time they had met.
Pito observed how Cordero, by then the undisputed leader of the New York colony, kept his Queens home open for young riders who had left their families and their Latin American homelands, if they were good kids and wanted to learn. Not only riders, but stable hands and agents, relatives and friends, everybody treated the same as long as you loved the game. He mentored Pito. They talked horses, talked races, talked jockeys and strategy. When Cordero’s late wife, Marjorie, trained, Pito was her assistant.
In 1992, he left the backstretch for the benefits and stability of a frontside job. The jockeys’ room gave him access to riders and the chance to closely watch what he had missed out on.
“Pito’s a good horseman,” Cordero says. “Even though he never rode a race, he’s very good. He knows this game. He knows how to watch jockeys.”
These discussions never ceased, but have taken on a fresh intensity with Irad and Jose as they continue the heritage of Puerto Rican jockeys. Cordero, who is 70, remains the guardian of this tradition; while carrying the book of another Puerto Rican great, John Velazquez, he calls Pito daily to talk about the Ortiz brothers.
“Angel watches them closely,” Pito says with pride. “He watches three riders – Johnny V. and the Ortiz brothers. All the things I taught them, I learned from Angel.”
Hiding in trunks is apparently a rite of passage at Puerto Rico’s racetrack. Irad and Jose did it when they were still grade-schoolers.
“You can’t get in at 8 or 9,” Irad says. “We stopped two minutes before the gate and got in the trunk. Our cousin, too.” Their cousin, Hector Miguel Diaz, is one of the leading bug boys in Puerto Rico right now.
“They stopped at the three-eighths pole, and we would get out,” Irad continues. “When I heard the breeze of the horses flying past, I got a great feeling – like, wow, I want that.”
The Ortiz men were jockeys, and this is what the boys wanted as far back as they can remember. Besides their grandfather, Uncle Ivan was a jockey, here and in Puerto Rico. Their father, although not a jockey, took seriously their passion. Using a pillow as a saddle, he would put the boys on the bed, equip them with a helmet and a whip, everything, and make them ride against each other to the televised races from El Comandante.
Despite her disapproval, their mother wouldn’t stop them from riding. At the earliest permissible age, 16-year-old Irad enrolled in Puerto Rico’s school for prospective jockeys, Escuela Vocacional Hipica. In the months after Irad graduated, on New Year’s Day, 2011, he showed class and experience rarely seen in an apprentice, winning 76 races from 357 mounts.
Pito was watching and, with the request of Irad’s family, began looking for an agent for him. He showed the tapes to agent Tony Micallef, who commented that Irad didn’t look like a bug boy. Pito told Micallef that Irad would take him places his jockey at the time, Ryan Curatalo, would not. They were in business.
Pito called Cordero and told him he had an 18-year-old from Puerto Rico who looked more advanced than any bug boy he’d ever seen. And his younger brother waited in the wings, a year behind. Once Irad arrived in the spring, Pito took him to Cordero’s house.
Irad was nervous, about to meet one of his idols. He rode the Equicizer Cordero keeps in his home, after which time Cordero told his friend that there were only very small things to fix. He had the talent, but could he handle the new climate, the new language? “We just have to teach them race strategy and race riding,” was Cordero’s verdict.
Irad rode well at Belmont, but he was staying with his grandfather in East New York, Brooklyn, and would have to get up at 3 and wait for a ride to the track. After he returned from Saratoga, he asked Pito if he could live with him. Pito left his apartment and rented a new one near Belmont.
Jose, as the younger brother, was naturally impatient to join. “You gotta ride a lot of horses over there,” Irad told Jose after he graduated, but instead he decided to come in early 2012. He, too, received an encouraging evaluation at Cordero’s house.
Pito arranged for him to ride at Parx, figuring with his brother’s trailblazing and his ability, he could win the Eclipse Award. But one day, Jose rode a horse for Rudy Rodriguez at Belmont, won, and elected to stay.
His brother supported his decision, and Jose moved in with Irad and Pito. For Pito the teacher, now his lessons could really start. These lessons could be grouped into two categories: life and riding.
The life lessons: “Be humble and work hard for what you want and try to learn a little more every day. Show class in the room. Pay attention to what the journeymen tell you. Don’t live beyond your means. Be the same person that you are. Save your money. Help your family; they supported you all those years.”
The last one Pito preached like religion. The boys, who rarely spend their money or think much about it, bought cars for their parents. About the only thing Irad has spent his money on is a humongous bed that could fit five; he and Jose share it, having slept in the same bed since they were young.
When each brother arrived in New York, Pito offered introductory pointers: “Save ground. The trainers here want you to save ground. Have patience. The whip is not to abuse a horse, but to call his attention. Be connected with the horse.”
More important, he set out to teach them race riding. There was nobody better at this than Cordero; he was a handicapper in the saddle, mindful not only of what he was doing but of what every other jockey was doing. He would herd them, crowd them, maybe even slam them, providing an everyday tour-de-force tutorial on race riding.
“I told Irad, ‘Know how the other riders ride, know their tendencies,’ ” Pito says. “He already knows. Know what they like to do, I told him, and you have them at your mercy. Know the guys who like to get off the fence, and then you won’t have to circle the field.”
Irad has earned a reputation for quiet hands on a horse, and racing on the grass illustrates his effortless style, an almost imperceptible twitch of the wrist communicating to his mount to go on. For Jose, in his first year he has been hard to catch on the lead. Both look good on a horse, which makes Pito happy, and, always optimistic, they put their horses in positions where they can succeed.
Pito and Cordero were pleasantly surprised at how Jose, after some initial greenness, shrugged off a mid-summer injury that cost him five weeks and rocketed to the top of the Aqueduct standings last fall. His bug ended March 20, and yet he won five races in his first four days as a journeyman.
At times this winter, the pair were as close to unbeatable as it gets in racing. On Saturday, Jan. 20, they won three races apiece, and that night, Pito predicted even more success Sunday.
“Pito used to say, ‘One day you’re going to win all the card. I know that’s going to happen,’ ” Irad says. “And he said that this day it could happen. We rode a lot of live horses.”
“A lot of live horses,” Jose says.
There were nine races that Sunday. Jose won the first three, and then Irad won the next four. Irad did not have any mounts after that. Jose finished third in the eighth, and then sixth in the finale.
“It was just amazing,” Irad says. “We almost did it.”
“The greatest day of my life,” Jose adds under his breath.
They seem genuinely awed by their success and the successful riders around them. They are humble and reserved – an impression reinforced by the passing remarks of a NYRA steward who said he wishes he had them as sons – and their support for one another off the track knows no bounds.
You can hear Pito in their voices.
“You gotta keep working, pushing every day,” Irad says, snapping his fingers. “It’s hard, man. We want to do it better and better every day. We learn something new every day.”
As if on cue, Javier Castellano sees the Ortiz brothers on his way into the jockeys’ room. He flew from Florida to ride two races. They speak in Spanish, but one can make out that Javier calls them the “big jockeys” – grandes jinetes – and they laugh, embarrassed, declining the praise.
Irad and Jose appear competitive in an encouraging, healthy manner – both want to be the best, saying there is no brotherhood on the track, but not at the misfortune of the other.
When asked if competition drives them, Jose says, “I wanna do what he does. He did in one year what some jockeys don’t do in 20 years.”
He looks at his brother affectionately, swelling with pride. “He won three Grade 1 races at Saratoga. He rode three at the Breeders’ Cup.”
Irad brushes his face and slumps in his chair, bashful and moved by his brother’s praise, as if it were unexpected.
“You rode three at the Breeders’ Cup, right?” Jose asks him.
“Yeah,” Irad says quietly.
Both of them are taken aback by their success, but they aren’t reflecting on it nor can they be drawn on its significance.
“We’re young, and we just go to the track,” Jose says. “We just wake up and ride.”
Last summer at Saratoga, Irad and Jose rented a house for their whole family. They asked Pito to join, but he declined – a preview, perhaps, of a time when they are no longer roommates, when the boys enter the house and Pito won’t be there to tell them what they did wrong or right, to watch today’s races together and discuss tomorrow’s, to lovingly bust Pito’s chops, to have Pito cook for them as he makes sure they’re eating like proper athletes should eat. Pito seems more aware of this than the boys.
“In one or two years, they will buy their own apartment, and we will go our own way,” Pito says.
Pito won’t travel far, of course, remaining in the jockeys’ room. There are some things that won’t change. Pito will take Irad and Jose every week to Cordero’s house in Greenvale, L.I.
“They come over the house and first ride the Equicizer,” Cordero says. “Then we play games. We always compete.” They play video games for almost every sport imaginable – basketball, baseball, golf, boxing, and, of course, horse racing. “Whoever wins the most is the champion.”
These games are serious, especially Gallop Racer. “You have to know your horses, man,” Pito says, laughing. “Me and Angel are the top riders in the meeting.”
There is still much to learn, however, and Irad and Jose seem up for it. Cordero calls Pito every time they do something wrong, even though he knows that his friend has probably already told them.
“The other day Irad won four, Angel called me. ‘Pito, get on his ass. His seat is too high; he has to keep his heels down.’ ”
“Johnny V. is also keeping an eye on them,” Pito adds. “He often asks me, how are they doing? When you have these guys in your corner, you can’t go wrong.”
Pito says he will retire as a peace officer in five years. But retirement will only bring a new occupation for which he is impeccably qualified. He wants to become an agent, always has, and what better advertisement than the Ortiz brothers.
“I’ll go to Puerto Rico and bring a bug boy over,” he says.
But Pito knows that he’ll have trouble matching Irad and Jose, and not only as riders. When finally asked if he has any children, Pito answers with feeling and without hesitation: “These are my kids.”
We've had the pleasure of working with both Irad and Jose since they came to NY. The first summer Irad came to Saratoga w/ Ryan Curatolo, he didn't land many mounts, but you could see he was out working the barns with Tony every morning and it was only a matter of time before he broke through. Jose does strike you with a confidence, that he will continue his forward progression, even as he loses his bug. I believe they both will compete and be successful on the NYRA circuit, as the colony is aging a bit, and the newer shooters Lezcano, Rosario, Saez will take over.
I hope they didn't sign a long term lease. If the younger Ortiz doesn't pick his head up soon at the Big A all those apprentice wins on the inner track will be for not. The key to a smooth transition from apprentice to journeyman is the ability to win consistently without the weight allowance, something Jose isn't showing us on the outer strip or the turf. Lot's of bug riders have had good inner track winter meets but weren't effective once shedding the bug and having to compete at equal weights. Given the choice of Eddie Castro or Jose Ortiz at equal weights, the answer should be obvious, Castro is a much more polished reliable rider than the 19 year old kid. Irad is the champ in that household and Jose will probably be sending postcards from the shore this summer................the Jersey shores in Oceanport.
Both are already great jocks--but I feel Jose has more "superstar potential" than his older brother--only time will tell
Note that there were two "El Comandante" racetracks. The original one known as El Comandante was located in the town Carolina and it operated from January 9 1957 until October 12, 1976. The second "El Comandante" located in Canóvanas was formally known as "El Nuevo Comandante" started operating in October 31 1976 and was re-named "Hipódromo Camarero" a few years back . The old El Comandante had a policy of not admitting children under the age of 12 which meant a lot of horse crazy kids like me had to wait until that age to be able to attend. That policy was discontinued at the Canóvanas track, therefore most likely "Pito" was not allowed to visit the old track (not the present Camarero racetrack). Nice article, and even nicer to hear about these kids from my beloved town of Trujillo Alto. Regards, Rosana
The Ortiz brothers share an apt with the security guard??? Arent both of these brothers millionaires??? whats going on?!?
over at the Texas track they have a Bunch of kids Named O'neil that ride
Johnny V (on a 14/1 shot) put it on Ortiz Jr. Sat...Ortiz Jr. was on the heavy favorite...He got a lesson from "The Master"...Good luck to them...
maybe there is a lot of excellent jockeys that have hung up their tack in the last 10 years. look to the future at the new ones, you got irad and jose,then there an appt. at haw (esquivel) that looks very good. among some that havent been riding long is joel rosariod others that are working their way up.in the next 10 years there will be some of the older ones that hang it up and the door opens agin.
Irad an Jose the best one two punch ,I'm not sure but I think these guys won the most exceta as brothers.God bless these young riders! I lost money Saturday going to Irad over Johnny an it cost me ! But they are my favorite an i still play them with no remorse
Great story about Pito & his "sons"! Heartwarming to read how much they are loved, they are lucky to receive so much guidance from Pito (and Cordero), and support from the other jockeys.