11/02/2016 10:26AM

Jose Ortiz rides breakthrough season into Breeders' Cup

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jose Ortiz ranks second nationally in races won and has seven Breeders' Cup mounts.

Last Saturday at Belmont Park, Jose Ortiz won both divisions of a maiden race for 2-year-olds, and the horse he wasn’t even scheduled to ride may turn out to be racing’s next big star.

That’s the type of year it has been for Ortiz, who in 2016 has escaped the shadow of his older brother Irad, and like Takaful – the aforementioned 2-year-old colt whom Ortiz picked up at the draw – has emerged as potentially racing’s next big riding star.

Jose Ortiz has had the type of year that fuels Eclipse Award dreams. His 293 wins through Tuesday rank him second nationally, and his purse earnings of $19.38 million have him third entering the final two months of the year. Of course, the biggest two days of the racing season are Friday and Saturday, when the Breeders’ Cup is held at Santa Anita and where Ortiz will have seven mounts.

Ortiz is the leading rider in wins on the New York Racing Association circuit and won riding titles at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. The primary reason he didn’t win the Belmont fall title was that he chose to increase his exposure and ride a good portion of the fall at Keeneland, where his 10 victories were good for sixth in the standings.

“Unbelievable year,” Ortiz said. “I hope we can close it out with a good Breeders’ Cup.”

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Ortiz, who is winless with nine prior Breeders’ Cup rides, doesn’t lack for chances this year. On Friday, he is scheduled to ride Oscar Performance in the Juvenile Turf and Happy Mesa in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. On Saturday, his five Breeders’ Cup mounts include Ectot in the $4 million Turf, Ironicus in the $2 million Mile, Limousine Liberal in the $1.5 million Sprint, and By the Moon in the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint. Al’s Gal, a longshot in the Filly and Mare Turf, is Ortiz’s other mount.

Ortiz, a native of Puerto Rico who began riding in the U.S. in 2012, averaged 233 winners from 2013-15. But this year, he has improved the quality of his stock. He has won 42 stakes, 20 of which are graded, including Grade 1 races for Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher and graded races for Shug McGaughey and Bill Mott.

“I’m getting opportunity from the trainers that have good horses to compete at the next level,” Ortiz said. “Experience, too. I’ve only been riding going on five years in January.”

Ortiz is wise enough to realize that as successful as he’s been, at age 23, he’s far from a complete rider.

“I need to work out my trip a little better sometimes,” Ortiz said. “I get in trouble when I shouldn’t be, and it sometimes costs me races. To be honest with myself, I have to correct those mistakes that I made. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do; sometimes you know as a rider it was your fault, that you could avoid it.”

Ortiz didn’t do anything wrong aboard the late-running Ironicus in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland on Oct. 8. But Ironicus was widest of all in the stretch, and his late kick got him within a head of winner Miss Temple City at the wire.

Ortiz pointed out that Ironicus was compromised by a slow pace in the Shadwell.

“I got pushed out a little wide, and the pace made the whole difference,” Ortiz said. “He sure gave me a great run at the end. He really kicked on.”

Pace was key in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic on Oct. 1 at Belmont Park, where Ortiz was able to guide Ectot to a front-running upset over Flintshire in a race run over soft ground. Pletcher, the trainer of Ectot, said he chose Ortiz to replace John Velazquez – who was committed to Money Multiplier in that race – because of Ortiz’s sense of pace.

“He’s a pretty well-rounded rider,” Pletcher said. “He rides the turf well, but I think he’s really good from the gate, he rides horses on the pace very well, and he’s got a good sense of pace. When we weren’t able to keep Johnny on Ectot for the Turf Classic, I thought he was the right fit for the horse.”

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McGaughey, the trainer of Ironicus, believes that Ortiz is just getting more confident, and that translates to better rides.

“A couple of times he’s come back and gotten beat, and he said, ‘That won’t happen again,’ ” McGaughey said. “I think the confidence level is high where if he does make a mistake, he knows what he did wrong, and it won’t happen again.”

Ortiz has won 20 races for McGaughey this year, including a victory on the Malibu Moon colt Lead Astray in the first division of that 2-year-old race at Belmont last Saturday. McGaughey said he would like to find an allowance race for that colt’s next start.

As for Takaful, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said the colt “was earmarked from May as our best.” But McLaughlin entered him Saturday only when the race split, and he wasn’t sure he was completely ready for his debut. Takaful went gate to wire under Ortiz, winning by eight lengths and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 92.

As good a year as it’s been professionally for Ortiz, it is going to end even better for him personally. On Dec. 20, he will marry jockey Taylor Rice. After a honeymoon, they along with Irad Ortiz Jr. and his family will spend the first few days of 2017 in Puerto Rico visiting, among others, Ortiz’s grandfather. Ortiz plans to ride the winter at Aqueduct.

“We have been here five years, and my grandpa asked us if we could go and have New Year’s in Puerto Rico with the family,” Ortiz said. “Business is important, but so is family.”