Saratoga Springs

Ortiz shrugs off slow start at Saratoga

Two-time defending jockey champion is lagging behind, but plenty of racing still in front of him
Jockey Jose Ortiz has won the last two Saratoga riding titles, but has had a hard time getting to the winner's circle this year.
Jockey Jose Ortiz has won the last two Saratoga riding titles, but has had a hard time getting to the winner's circle this year.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Where has this guy been?

Jose Ortiz won four stakes races on Sunday’s card at Monmouth Park, including the $1 million Haskell Invitational aboard Good Magic.

So in one day in New Jersey he equaled his total for the entire 2018 Saratoga Race Course meet to that point — all nine days of it.

It’s difficult to win anything at Saratoga because the competition is so fierce, but Ortiz isn’t just anybody: He’s the two-time defending riding champion. He also won the Eclipse Award last year as the most outstanding jockey in North America, and is leading everybody in earnings this year, with over $15 million in purses heading into Wednesday’s card at Saratoga.

If what could be perceived as a slump is beginning to gnaw at Ortiz, he isn’t showing any signs of it. It is still relatively early in the 40-racing-day meet, after all.

“Not really. I’ve been here before,” he said with a grin before the third race. “The first year I was here, I think I won 65 races and I didn’t win one in the first week or so.”

The grin broadened to a full smile a few minutes later, after the 24-year-old Ortiz made it to the winner’s circle on Ghost Giant for his fifth victory of the meet.

With no help from his performance at Saratoga, Ortiz was named national jockey of the week by the Jockeys’ Guild for the week ending Sunday, simply for his monster day at Monmouth.

He picked up his fourth winner of the meet in the ninth race on Monday, but his strike rate was still an uncharacteristically meager 7 percent.

Meanwhile, two other young jockeys, Ricardo Santana Jr. and Luis Saez, have been red-hot. Through Monday, they were each winning well over 20 percent of the time, with Saez leading the meet with 13 winners, followed by Jose’s brother Irad with 12 and Javier Castellano, John Velazquez and Santana each with 10.

After starting his day with a victory, Jose Ortiz ended it with a sneaky ride up the rail aboard Frisky Magician in the ninth to close from last place in the 10-horse field and engage Banana Thief in the final strides. They traded the lead on head bobs, but Banana Thief’s nose barely hit the wire first.

It was another excellent ride by Santana, who has paired with trainer Steve Asmussen to form a dominating combination at the meet.

“We’ve got a great group of riders in the room,” Jose Ortiz said. “I knew it was going to be tough, because I didn’t have the momentum coming up from Belmont. Irad had it, Saez, Santana is having an outstanding meet. Johnny is always there, and Javier had a good start.”

Irad Ortiz won 60 races at the Belmont Park spring/summer meet, and Jose and Manny Franco tied for second with 49 each. Jose won that meet last year, with his brother second, and rode that wave into Saratoga, winning 58 races and the award named after Hall of Famer Angel Cordero Jr. for the second year in a row. He won 65 races in 2016.

The Saratoga jockeys are reminded of the standings every day, since the New York Racing Association keeps the public updated by posting photos of the current top 12 riders outside the silks room.

“You look at it every day. It’s all over,” Ortiz said. “The board is out there. I know I’ve got four wins, and the leader has 13. You just need to have a good day to get going. Once I get going — one good day, two good days — if I get close, let’s see what happens.”

Ortiz knows those good days are still out there, based on his success at Monmouth on Sunday.

He won the Monmouth Cup on Name Changer, the Matchmaker on Elysea’s World and the Wolf Hill on Imprimis.

In the main event, not only did Good Magic look like a million bucks, but also gives Ortiz a prime candidate for victory in the Aug. 25 Travers.

“It’s always good to have a good day like that, and it means a lot to see Good Magic run like that, because we want him to have a good year and hopefully the final race will be the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” he said. “With Justify out, it’s wide open.

“It was just important to come back and do what he did, and I’m very excited about the Travers. Let’s see what happens there.”

He’s also looking forward to riding 2017 Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit in Saturday’s Whitney, and is coming off a nice win in the Delaware Handicap aboard Elate, with whom he won the Alabama last year and likely is targeting the Personal Ensign on Travers Day.

If he can start winning from a quantity standpoint by then, too, all the better.

“You’ve just to keep grinding,” he said. “I’m working hard, and I’m sure a big day is going to come up. And hopefully it comes soon. You need a good day with three or four and get right back in the race.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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