‘That’s what I’m born for,’ says Puerto Rican horse jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.
Angel Cordero Jr. was playing dominoes inside the jockey’s room at Gulfstream Park one afternoon recently, killing time during the races, when he was asked for his opinion on racing’s two new riding hotshots, brothers Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz.
Cordero once ruled the sport, a fierce rider who counts three Kentucky Derby titles among his more than 7,000 career wins. Now 76, Cordero serves as the agent for another jockey standout, John Velazquez, so he spends as much time at the track these days lining up mounts for his client as he did during his glory years in the 1970s and ’80s.
Cordero and Velazquez are the 1 and 1A of Puerto Rican jockey greats.
Now they have company in the form of the Ortiz brothers, who hail from Trujillo Alto outside San Juan and are becoming to horse racing what the Williams sisters are to tennis, sibling stars who have taken over the sport.
Jose, 25, won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding jockey in 2017. Many believe Irad, 26, will win it for 2018, nudging out his younger brother for the sport’s top riding honor when the award is announced next week.
And it’s why Cordero is often asked to compare the two.
“People always ask me the same question: Who is better?” Cordero said, turning a domino over and over in his fingers. “The only answer I can give is this: Flip a coin. I can’t separate them.”
Cordero isn’t alone.
While neither Ortiz has yet to win a Kentucky Derby, most figure it’s only a matter of time. They’ve won just about everything else at an age when most riders haven’t yet reached their prime.
Breeders’ Cup victories? Check and check for Irad and Jose.
The Belmont Stakes, final leg of the Triple Crown? Check and check again.
Totals wins and earnings nationally? You’ll find Irad and Jose at or near the top of the rankings.
“This is a game where you lose more than you win,” Jose said. “You lose 80 percent of the time. That’s if you are very good.”
In a profession in which a 20 percent win rate is considered exceptional, similar to a .300 hitter in baseball, Irad has eclipsed the 20 percent mark in each of the past five years. At Gulfstream so far this meet, he’s won an impressive 24 percent of his races. Irad led the nation in 2018 with purse earnings of $27 million. Jose was right behind him at $26 million, one year after leading the country.
Perhaps most impressive of all is this: The Ortiz brothers are putting up their big numbers despite having to compete against each other in the same races, where — barring dead heats — there can be only one winner.
On a typical Gulfstream card, you’re apt to find both going head to head in at least half of the track’s races, creating a sibling rivalry that is fiercer on the track than it is away from it.
They keep it friendly and civil, though.
“We don’t trash talk,” Jose said with a grin. “Not a lot.”
Said Irad: “Whatever we play, no matter what game it is, we are competitive. I want to beat him and he wants to beat me. When we’re in the same race, he’s just another jockey to me.”
The brothers come from a racing family. An uncle and grandfather were both jockeys in Puerto Rico.
They learned to ride on a pony they received at a young age.
But Jose dreamed of becoming a baseball player.
“I was pretty good,” Jose said. “I was a shortstop and first baseman and the coach I was playing for said he could probably find me a scholarship to play college in the U.S.”
But Jose’s small size presented a problem.
“My mom, she’s 5 feet, maybe 4-11,” he said. “My dad is like 5-2. I wasn’t going to be big. When I was 15, I knew I wasn’t going to make it and had to make a decision.”
Jose, as well as Irad, enrolled in Puerto Rico’s famed state-run academy for jockeys, Escuela Vocacional Hipica. It wasn’t long before they climbed to the top of their class.
In 2011, Irad rode his first professional races at Puerto Rico’s Hipodromo Camarero and later that year moved to New York, winning 151 races as a 19-year-old apprentice. One year later, Jose joined his brother in New York and enjoyed instant success.
“I think it was probably easier for the second one [Jose] that showed up because the first one [Irad] got everyone’s attention,” said Mark Hennig, a veteran thoroughbred trainer.
Jose credits his brother for helping to pave his way.
“When you graduate, they throw you in the jungle with the lions,” Jose said of coming to the U.S. to ride. “You have to know how to survive. So he showed me how. I’m here because of him. He taught me everything I know.”
The brothers were so talented that trainers with top horses battled for their services.
“You’re just happy to get one of them when you can,” Hennig said. “They’re both great kids. They’re always happy. They’re always smiling, and they ride hard. They put a horse into position to win a lot of times. They put them into the race.”
And yet the brothers don’t ride alike. Each has his own style. Irad stands taller in the irons and is considered the more aggressive of the two with his urging. Jose crouches lower on the horse and uses more finesse.
“It’s funny how it works,” Jose said. “He’s very aggressive and I’m very calm on the horses. But the good thing is it’s working for both of us. His style works for him. My style works for me.”
Said Irad: “In the stretch, probably, I look a little stronger. But he’s strong, too. He can get everything out of the horse, too. He can get the second gear out of a horse.”
No matter their contrasting styles, their success is what stands out most.
“They developed quick,” Cordero said. “I knew they had the ability and I knew that sooner or later they would make it. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think they were going to do that good so quick.”
The brothers will attend the Eclipse Award ceremonies next week at Gulfstream to find out which one is named the nation’s outstanding jockey of 2018. Veteran rider Mike Smith is the third finalist for the award. At 53, Smith is more than twice the age of either brother.
“I’m going for sure,” Jose said. “But Irad is the favorite to win it. I still had a great year, though. I can’t complain.”
There will be no celebration afterward. They intend to go home (they own neighboring houses) and return to work the following day at Gulfstream, winning as many races as they can.
“I’m very competitive and he is too,” Irad said. “When we’re out there, forget about brothers. And then, after the race, we are brothers again.”