On Saturday in the Grade III Glens Falls, jockey Jose Ortiz patiently settled for position at midpack with his horse, Suffused.
He skillfully guided him away from the hedge, using a precise internal clock to move when the time was right coming off the turn.
Free to run in the middle of the stretch, he used strong urging to get Suffused to the finish line in first.
It was a microcosm of Ortiz’s 2016 Saratoga Race Course meet.
The 22-year-old from Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, started slowly, gained momentum, then kicked it into high gear in the final week of the meet to win the first Saratoga riding title of his young career.
With the trophy named for Angel Cordero Jr. secure through 39 racing days, Ortiz won one more race on Monday to finish with 65 victories, and it was a big one — in fact, the biggest one — in the Grade I Hopeful on Practical Joke.
It was the fifth time a jockey has had at least 60 wins. After the Saratoga meet expanded from 36 to 40 days in 2010, Ramon Dominguez set the meet record with 68 in 2012.
“Amazing. It’s a great place,” Ortiz said. “Saratoga is like the best meet in America.
“I’m glad that it’s over. This meet is by far where I work the most, in the mornings and riding in the afternoons. There are 10, 11 races every day, and a lot of horses on the backstretch, I’ll tell you that.”
In fact, with the championship in the bag, Ortiz was still at the track at 6:30 Monday morning to work some horses.
That’s the kind of dedication and professionalism he and his brother Irad Jr. learned from their mentor, fellow Puerto Rican John Velazquez, a Hall of Famer with five Spa titles. Velazquez’s mentor was Cordero.
Irad was the defending champion, but couldn’t keep up with his younger brother in the closing stages of the meet and finished in second place with 57 after winning three on Monday’s card. Javier Castellano, who won the Spa title in 2013 and 2014, was third, with 51.
Jose Ortiz and his brother are extremely close, and each is proud and thrilled when the other is successful.
“I was happy for him last year that he could accomplish one of his dreams, and I’m happy that I can make my dream come true this year,” Jose said. “He rides his horses, I ride mine and we help each other in whatever we can, but when we step on the track, it’s all about business.
“We’ve got to ride for our owner and trainer. We are very professional when we step out there. When the races are done, we’re here, we live together so we go home and we’re very friendly.”
Besides the Glens Falls, Ortiz won the Grade II Jim Dandy with a heady front-end ride on Laoban, a 27-1 long shot who got away with a comfortable early pace and preserved enough energy to hold off the field.
In the Travers, Ortiz and Laoban finished well up the track, like the rest of the field did, as Arrogate broke the track record.
“I think that ride on Suffused in the Glens Falls was maybe my best ride in the whole meet,” Ortiz said. “I watch the replay over and over again, and everything went perfect. I put on a perfect move in the right place and swung out in the right spot.”
Ortiz came into the meet with momentum, too, having won the Belmont Park spring/summer meet. He also has two Aqueduct titles.
Credit should go to his agent, Jimmy Riccio, as well, for lining up live mounts on a consistent basis.
Ortiz took advantage of that by giving most of the horses he rode as good a chance to win as they could get.
Last Friday, Ortiz had just a five-win lead over Irad, then he won five on Saturday, the fifth of which was the Glens Falls on Suffused. That gave him a 61-52 lead over Irad, while Castellano had 50, with just two days left.
“I won Belmont and had a lot of momentum coming into it,” Jose Ortiz said. “But the first couple weeks, I did win, but I didn’t get off to a great start. Then in the middle of the meet, everything started going right for me, and I closed really good.”
During his five-win Saturday, which fell one short of the single-day meet record, Ortiz even won on 38-1 Silver Ride.
“I just try to put them where they are comfortable and ride them with confidence,” he said. “Every time I go out there, I think I’ve got a shot. I worked that horse and he was coming off a layoff, but he worked 1:14 the other day on the main track like it was nothing. He was ready to roll. I think he was such a long shot because Johnny’s horse [Neolithic] was a big favorite, and the time he was off. But [trainer] Brian Lynch does an amazing job with his horses. Every time I step on the track, I’m sure he’s ready.”