12/06/2012 12:53PM

Aqueduct: Ortiz brothers make their mark on New York jockey colony

Barbara D. Livingston
From left, jockeys Jose Espinoza, Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz Jr., and Eddie Castro last summer at Saratoga. Irad is in his second year as a jockey; Jose, in his first year, is one of the leading apprentices on the New York circuit.

Late during training hours on a recent, raw Saturday morning, when most of their contemporaries had already made the rounds – or never made them at all – jockeys and brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz came onto Aqueduct’s main track to work one more set of horses for trainer Wesley Ward.

When you’re young and trying to pick up business, this is what you do. Even if, in the case of 20-year-old Irad Ortiz Jr., you bruised your lower back a week earlier in a spill. Even if, in the case of 19-year-old Jose Ortiz, you’re riding six days a week, trying to take advantage of your remaining time as an apprentice.

And even if your mother is making a rare visit from Puerto Rico and leaving later that day.

For most of 2012, the Ortiz brothers have been working diligently trying to succeed on the difficult New York Racing Association circuit.

And for the better part of the last year they have done just that.

Of the 18 races run last weekend at Aqueduct, the Ortiz brothers won six of them – fittingly, three apiece.

Jose Ortiz, a five-pound apprentice, has moved into second place in the standings at the current Aqueduct fall meeting with 19 victories, 13 behind Ramon Dominguez, who is out with an injury. The fall meet ends Sunday.

With his three-win performance last Sunday, Irad Ortiz Jr. now has 122 wins for the year on the NYRA circuit, which puts him fifth overall.

At this time last year, Irad Ortiz Jr. was the up-and-coming apprentice trying to outwork the competition to win races and get noticed. Now, as New York racing gets ready for its long winter meet over Aqueduct’s inner track beginning Wednesday, it is Jose Ortiz who will attempt to be the leading apprentice while vying for the same business that his brother seeks.

The brothers, who live together in a house near Belmont Park, are supportive of each other’s quest to succeed, and leave the business of securing mounts to their respective agents.

“The agents have to do their work,” said Jose Ortiz, who is represented by Jim Riccio Jr. “My agent puts me on a horse, I ride that horse. If my agent picks up one horse Irad rode before, it’s the agent’s problem.”

Irad Ortiz Jr., who is represented by Tony Micallef, said: “He wants to win races and I want to win races too. We’re brothers, but business is business.”

Originally from Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, where their grandfather and uncle were jockeys, the Ortiz brothers both attended for two years that country’s Escuela Vocacional Hipica, a school for prospective riders. They also started their riding careers in Puerto Rico.

Irad Ortiz Jr. came to the mainland U.S. in the spring of 2011 and came right to New York. Jose Ortiz came in the early part of 2012 and, after beginning his career at Parx, wanted to join his brother in New York.

“I want the best for him, and he just told me, ‘I want to be in New York and be a New York rider,’ ’’ Irad Ortiz Jr. said. “I said, ‘Come and I’ll help you because you’re my brother,’ and I’m going to help him every time.”

Said Jose Ortiz:  “He watches me, every time tries to help me. He’s a very good brother. He’s my teacher.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. got his big break in June when trainer Kiaran McLaughlin put him on a 3-year-old filly in a first-level allowance race. Questing rolled to victory that day and McLaughlin, as he has done in the past with young riders Fernando Jara and Alan Garcia, kept Ortiz on the filly for the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga. Ortiz won both the Coaching Club and Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga, victories that could propel Questing to the 3-year-old filly championship

“I know a trainer going into a Grade 1 at Saratoga can take me off,” Irad Ortiz Jr. said. “He had the confidence in me and I won the race, and that’s very good for me because everybody can see how I can ride good horses too.”

Also at Saratoga, Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt aboard longshot Poseidon’s Warrior. In September, Ortiz won his first $1 million race when he guided Handsome Mike to an upset victory in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx.

The summer was mostly a blur for Jose Ortiz. On July 15, final day of the Belmont meet, he went down in a spill, sustaining ligament damage to his shoulder, a punctured lung, and a broken nose. He wasn’t able to make it back until Aug. 26 and then proceeded to go 0 for 17 at Saratoga before winning 10 races at the Belmont fall meet.

In the fall, Jose Ortiz returned to Parx on one of his two dark days from New York.

“I want to ride because you have the bug just one year,” Jose Ortiz said, referring to the racing term for an apprentice. “When you lose the bug, it’s not coming back again. I want to enjoy my bug year, work hard and win races.”

Jose Ortiz is scheduled to lose his apprentice status Jan. 29 but is expected to get an extension due to the time he missed at Saratoga.

By working hard, listening to advice from fellow jockeys such as Ramon Dominguez and John Velazquez, Irad Ortiz Jr., said he has improved as a rider the last year.

“I’m feeling more confident in myself right now,” he said. “I know what I’m doing right now. Every day I’m learning more, I keep watching my replays and try to correct my mistakes in the races.”

When asked if he felt his brother was better at some aspects of riding than he was, Irad Ortiz noted that Jose Ortiz was better coming out of the gate.

Asked the same question, Jose Ortiz said Irad Ortiz’s patience on the turf was something he’d like to acquire.

On Saturday, Jose Ortiz demonstrated prowess on the turf when he was able to get Rangey, usually a front-runner, to come from second to win in a pitched stretch battle when he alternated on the lead late.
The ride impressed the veteran John Parisella, the trainer of Rangey.

“With cheap horses I said, ‘Look, go to the front from the rail but look out if somebody wants the lead, let them go and sit second,’ ” Parisella said. “He did that perfectly but through the stretch my horse tried to pull himself up and [Ortiz] did a great job. He’s strong, and when you get a horse that’s trying to pull up and there’s a horse outside of you, you have to have something extra inside of you as a rider.”

David Jacobson, who could very well end up the leading trainer in wins on the NYRA circuit for 2012, had praise for both Ortiz brothers.

Jacobson said he was “impressed, not surprised,” that Irad Ortiz Jr. was able to succeed in New York after losing his apprentice allowance in February.

“He gets a lot of run out of horses, and he doesn’t make as many mistakes as you’d think a young rider would make,” Jacobson said. “His brother Jose, he’s going to be one of the top one or two bug riders for the winter.”