SARATOGA SPRINGS — With a chance to clinch the Saratoga Race Course riding title on closing day Monday, Jose Ortiz’s horse in the fourth race Sunday, Heavy Roller, was caught from behind and just nipped at the wire by Street Trust.
Then Ortiz was in the opposite position in the fifth race, but his horse, Super Silver, couldn’t quite catch Rucksack as Ortiz finished second again.
The weary grin through a muddy face was that of a winner, though.
Because his brother Irad Ortiz Jr., who was the only jockey within shouting distance of Jose heading into the closing day card, didn’t win the fifth, Jose officially clinched his third Saratoga riding title in the last four years, and went on to finish with 60 winning rides.
“It means a lot. I think it’s the best meet in America, and to end up on the top with so much talent in this room says a lot,” Ortiz said. “I worked really hard. I also got very good opportunities, and I tried to make the best out of it.”
On the trainers’ side, Mechanicville native Chad Brown had the meet championship, named after the late Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, well in hand about halfway through the 40-day meet, and although he had a relatively quiet weekend, he still finished with a 41-21 advantage over the next closest in the standings, Todd Pletcher.
Brown, who has won the Eclipse Award as the top trainer in North America the last three years and is well on his way to a fourth, has won the Saratoga championship three times in the last four years, setting the meet record last year by winning 46 races.
“It’s an honor,” Brown told the New York Racing Association. “So many people put in so much hard work, and so many horses showed up and gave very fine efforts the whole meet.”
Jose Ortiz capped his spectacular meet in spectacular fashion, by winning the Grade I Hopeful aboard Basin for his 60th winner. “I wanted that 60, and the Hopeful made it better,” he said.
“It wasn’t a goal. But it looks better than 59,” he added with a laugh.
Ortiz’s 280 mounts at the meet produced over $5 million in purse earnings. He won at a 21% clip and was in the money 51% of the time.
The Ortiz brothers combined have won the last five riding championships, named for Angel Cordero Jr.
The 25-year-old Jose came into Monday with a 59-52 lead over his 27-year-old brother.
Irad won the second race on Manifest Destiny, but when he didn’t make it to the winner’s circle in the fourth and fifth, Jose had the title outright.
The closest Irad got to the lead was four back on Thursday, after which Jose was able to keep him at arm’s length, without running away with it, over the final three days of racing.
“Walking in seven-up [Sunday], I was very confident I was going to get it, so I wasn’t even thinking about clinching,” Jose said. “I thought I clinched it yesterday [Saturday] when I went up seven.
“It’s hard to win one. If he won eight today, he really would’ve deserved it,” he said with a grin.
Again, it was a weary grin, though, as Ortiz was in as high demand to ride as anyone at the meet, and, despite two dark days a week this season, also was on multiple horses every morning during training hours.
“Yeah, I’m very tired,” he said. “My body, I think the week after the Travers, I started feeling it. I hit the wall big-time. The last couple days have been hard on me.”
The highlight of the meet was a no-brainer.
Ortiz won the Grade I Alabama on Aug. 17 aboard the Brown-trained Dunbar Road, a terrific win in its own right because of the history and prestige of the Alabama, but also because it was Ortiz’s third straight win in that race. He won on Eskimo Kisses last year and Elate in 2017, joining Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey and Mike Smith as the only jockeys to win three in a row.
“I did it three times in a row now, and joined Bailey and Mike Smith. That’s pretty amazing for me,” Ortiz said.
It was the first Alabama victory for Brown.
Of the 76 stakes offered during the meet, he won 13 of them, including nine of 40 graded stakes.
Of the 15 Grade I races on the flat track (not counting two steeplechases), Brown won the Diana with Sistercharlie, the Coaching Club American Oaks with Guarana, the Alabama with Dunbar Road and the Sword Dancer with Annals of Time.
In fact, his horses Sistercharlie, Rushing Fall and Homerique went 1-2-3, respectively, in the Diana, as Brown won the meet’s premier turf race for fillies and mares for the fourth year in a row and the fifth time overall. Sistercharlie won the Diana last year.
“The four Grade I’s really stand out,” Brown said. “From top to bottom, my horses gave really strong efforts. It’s a tough meet. You have to bring your best, and I thought it was a real competitive meet. I saw a lot of great horses run who didn’t win. Our stable is very deep, and the staff executed everything really well.”
Brown’s 41 wins came from 175 starts, for a win percentage of 23%, 63% in the money and almost $5.5 million in purse earnings. The only other trainer with at least 100 starts was Pletcher (116).