07/18/2017 2:46PM

Saratoga jockey race tough to handicap

Barbara D. Livingston
Jose Ortiz will try to win the Saratoga jockey title for a second straight year.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – For 31 summers, from 1976 through 2006, only seven individuals wore the crown as Saratoga’s leading jockey. Over the last 10 years, seven different riders have won the Saratoga riding title.

The winners of the last three Saratoga riding titles – Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz Jr., and Javier Castellano – are the leading candidates to win the title at this year’s meet, which begins Friday. But at least one jockey’s agent thinks it could be even more wide open than that.

“This year you could have four or five guys poised for huge meets,” said Steve Rushing, the agent for Irad Ortiz Jr. “Maybe even more than that.”

The colony here is very deep. Manny Franco, Joel Rosario, and Luis Saez all finished with more wins than Castellano at the Belmont spring-summer meet. John Velazquez, a five-time leading Saratoga rider, is always a factor here. Paco Lopez has moved his tack from New Jersey to Saratoga, where he will ride for the first time. Joe Bravo is also here from New Jersey. Last year, in his first year at Saratoga, Ricardo Santana Jr. won 14 races. He is back again.

:: Saratoga Clocker Report: Get in-depth workout analysis for the 2017 summer meet

Last year, Jose Ortiz won his first riding title here, with 65 victories, one shy of the 40-day meet record Castellano set in 2013. Ortiz used the momentum gained from his Saratoga success to become a finalist for an Eclipse Award as North America’s leading rider.

“It means a lot in the business because Saratoga is one of the toughest meets in the United States,” Jose Ortiz said. “If you are able to win it, it means you are in the top five in the nation.”

Like last year, Jose Ortiz enters this meet having won the Belmont spring-summer meet title. Over the last six Belmont cards, Ortiz won 12 races to pass his brother Irad, who went 4 for 48 during that same span. Nationally, Jose Ortiz ranks second in purse money won, a mere $40,000 behind Mike Smith, and he’s fifth in victories with 148.

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the 2015 Saratoga title with 57 wins. That same number of victories last year was good enough for second. He slumped a bit down the stretch at this summer’s Belmont meet, but his 155 wins in 2017 rank him third in that category among all North American riders.

Castellano had a subpar Belmont meet with just 36 winners and went 5 for 50 there in July. Still, his 26 graded stakes victories this year have him tied for first with Mike Smith in that category.

Castellano won the Saratoga riding title in 2013 and 2014. While he did not win the most races the past two summers, he has been the leader in purse money won at five of the last six Saratoga meets. Over the last two meets here, Castellano has won 21 graded stakes, 10 of which were Grade 1’s.

“Everybody wants to be leading jockey,” Castellano said. “It’s a competitive game. You want to be on top. Nobody wants to be behind nobody. If you think [otherwise], you’re better off retired. I’m looking for quality horses to ride like always, and hopefully have a decent year like the last four or five years.”

This summer will be special for Castellano because on Aug. 4 he will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Velazquez doesn’t see himself contending for most wins at the meet – “The title things is for the other guys,” he said – but the 27-year veteran still rides enough quality horses to win his fair share of races.

Trainer Chad Brown may hold the key to who wins this year’s Saratoga riding title. In 2016, Brown set a single-meet Saratoga record with 40 wins. Castellano (16) and Irad Ortiz (14) accounted for most of them. But in 2017, Brown has spread the wealth around to include Jose Ortiz and Joel Rosario. Rosario won nine races for Brown at the Belmont spring-summer meet, while Jose Ortiz won five. Last year at the corresponding meet, each had just one winner for Brown.

“It opens it up a little more,” Jose Ortiz said. “Hopefully, I can get more opportunities from him.”

Angel Cordero Jr., the winner of 13 Saratoga riding titles from 1976 to 1989, is the agent for both Velazquez and Franco. While Franco was the third-leading rider at Belmont with 47 wins, Cordero is leery of how Franco will do at Saratoga. Last year, Franco won 22 races here.

“There are still too many guys in front of him,” Cordero said. “Most of the jockeys, they all have a stable. He doesn’t have a stable. I don’t know if he’s ready to be in the first three. If he stays healthy, he’ll have a good meet. But it’s tough.”