How to Become a Great Jockey: Jose Ortiz’s Valleys and Peaks in Horse Racing

Once settled in the shadow of his brother, horse racing jockey Jose Ortiz has had a turbulent career en route to notoriety.

Updated: Aug. 18, 2018 • 11:05 AM ET

Jose Ortiz has become one of the world's most successful jockeys.

Oscar Performance just could not or would not fire last Saturday in the 36th running of the Arlington Million. But, what happened?

Sure, the horse had an outside post to begin the race, but the thoroughbred was the betting favorite with the best odds to win. And well-paced early in the race, Oscar Performance was running superbly. But he began to fade in the stretch, and jockey Jose Ortiz pulled him up before a dead-last finish.

Who was to blame for the result? Was it trainer Brian Lynch for putting him in the wrong spot? Should culpability be placed at the feet of Oscar Performance’s ownership, Amerman Racing, which insisted that the Arlington Million should be run because of the cash? Or, was it simply the horse?

Maybe Oscar just didn’t feel his best that day — horses experience that, just like us. But wait! What about the jockey, Ortiz? He is the true culprit! Ortiz took the horse out early into the three path, pushed the button too soon and possibly had a less than superb understanding of turf racing. It’s also difficult to believe that he followed Lynch’s pre-race instructions. Nevertheless, as the old saying goes: if a horse doesn’t win, it must have been the jockey.

Here’s a counterargument for Ortiz, though. When racing on a horse, where raw power, strength, pedigree and blood all meet in a nexus of awe, the jockey must struggle; they must edge and ease, and all in the pursuit to achieve something audacious. Reaching speeds of more than 35 miles per hour, jockeys are part adrenaline junkie and part surgeon (think making the climb a la Master Bruce from Bane’s prison, without the rope). It’s rather like being a human stopwatch, and timing is everything.

Pace, speed, conditions, goggles, wind, sun and temperature are just a few of the factors jockeys must deal with. Horses also get spooked easily, as some like to feel the comfort of a pack. Meanwhile, making left-hand turns around an oval aren’t as physiologically easy as right-hand ones.

Ponder those tidbits.

Pre-race preparations for jockeys are also massively important. Like other professional athletes, jockeys must study film. In the vein of horseplay, it’s imperative that they scrutinize the racing post. Before they stride onto the pitch, knowing their opponents and preparing for battle on dirt, turf or the all-weather Polytrack is paramount.

Jocks must remember their horse’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. If horses don’t please their owners and trainers, they can be out on the earholes. It’s a tough life. And from bug boy (an apprentice jockey) to seasoned veteran, the threat of serious injury is ever-present.

Chances are, if you’re a horseplayer, you’ve cursed at a jockey (I know I have, wrongly). Maybe you didn’t do it publicly — perhaps it was uttered under your breath. When thinking back, though, what were you really miffed about? Was it that you thought the jockey took the horse out too early? Did you believe that he got caught on the rail, which you knew was playing slow? Was it that he didn’t mind his surroundings in the deep stretch and got nicked at the wire? Or, were you just angry that you lost your purse?

Maybe you forgot that risk is part of the game. Maybe you were the one that missed something in past performances. Or, did you neglect to notice that extra pound reported during the scratches and changes, signifying that the horse was carrying excess weight? Regardless, you might not be sympathetic since cash was involved.

As with all sports, it’s so simple to play from the armchair with a cheap domestic in one hand and the controller in another. But next time you’re ready to unleash a barrage of epithets, consider this simple question: how hard is it to become a great jockey?

Short answer: it’s hard and always has been for various reasons.

I never had the chance to see Isaac Murphy race, but I used to pass by the cemetery in which he was indistinctly buried just outside of Lexington, Ky. and think about him. In the late 19h century, he was a wizard in the saddle and helped define the role for African American jockeys. In that era of Jim Crow laws, most jockeys were black until they were summarily run out of the sport by the white turfmen.

A fabulous book by Katherine Mooney called “Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack” tells this impressive, yet tragic, part of American social history. If you read how difficult it was for these athletes and what they had to endure, as far as racism and under dangerous conditions, you might pause and think about how far they’ve come in the irons.

Jockeys that reside in the states today may not have Jim Crow to contend with (the Civil Rights era assisted in part with de jure segregation by creating new laws), but de facto examples (discrimination that is cultural and based in reality) still exist in all kinds of guises. There are classes of racetracks, especially in America, and each conforms to a certain gradation, depending on the patrons and the time of year.

For instance, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. is owned by a powerful company, the Stronach Group. They run for most of the year because the weather is warm, despite high winds and rain during the summer. Yet, the track attracts the best jockeys from December through the Florida Derby in late March.

To be a jockey, even a top-notch one, means you pack your suitcase, a lot. You go where the races are, and the big ones always rotate. The top jocks didn’t reach that level based on pedigree; they got there by winning. For the jockey, winning is the only thing.

Jockeys are in a predicament — If they can’t win, they won’t get noticed. If they don’t get noticed, they never have the chance to ride the best mounts. If you don’t get the best mounts, your chances of winning go down exponentially. Jocks form a loose set of alliances with their equine brothers and sisters. They can’t win races without them, and the horse can’t either (although some try after they unseat their riders!)

The Oscar Performance rider at the Arlington Million last Saturday, Ortiz, won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in 2017. Yet in still, even the best finish last. Ortiz was probably extremely disappointed with the result, especially considering that he could look ahead and see his brother Irad on the Chad Brown-trained Robert Bruce soaring across the wire for the win.

That’s racing.

Ortiz hasn’t had it so bad, though. This past June, he got to ride at Royal Ascot for the first time, the celebrated and historically significant home to British racing (he rode two horses; both finished 5th). It was the capstone to a run that began nearly three years prior and saw his jockey stock rise in Amazonian fashion. In 2017, he dethroned Javier Castellano, ending his four-year run as the top jockey Eclipse winner.

Outlining this story, The New Yorker longtime contributor John Seabrook wrote an excellent piece last December about the Ortiz brothers measuring their success. However, there was something that did not make sense. How did Jose, who for most of his career lived in the shadow of his brother’s success, become the 2017 Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Jockey and become so celebrated?

Like baseball, horse racing is based heavily in statistical analysis. It has prided itself on this for generations. So for answers, I went to the one place where American horse racing numbers are readily available: Equibase.

Taking a page from the Bill James’ sabermetrics approach, I think I was able to draw at least one conclusion. I started by looking at Ortiz’s winning on dirt, as I thought that was where I would find the revolution he underwent as a jockey. Since he took part in every Triple Crown race, it seemed logical that the dirt would be where he found his greatest success.

His earnings and percentages were certainly better for graded stakes and stakes races (these are classified as G1, G2 and G3 races with classes of horses, opposed to regular stakes races that have smaller purses) on dirt, especially from 2016 to 2017, but Ortiz always seemed pretty consistent on that surface. In 2012, he suffered an injury and didn’t resume regular riding until 2013. By the next year, he was back on track with his career.

Once I looked at dirt, I was puzzled; so, I ran the turf numbers, and they were particularly fascinating. The thesis: Ortiz became a celebrated jockey not just by winning a Triple Crown race like he did at Belmont in 2017 — no — the ascendancy took place nearly a year earlier and of all places, it was at the New York Racing Association’s Aqueduct Racetrack just outside the City.

At first glance, that’s an odd place to begin, because Aqueduct isn’t particularly known for its turf course. Think about it, New York spends most of the first and last three months out of any given year mired in snow, ice and cold. If you’ve never watched an Aqueduct meet on television or had the good fortune of being onsite, then you’re missing out. The turf there only runs in April and November, so it’s brief. Ortiz, who immigrated after Irad from his native Puerto Rico and started riding in 2012 stateside, obviously knew about the season. After all, he had ridden the NYRA circuit for a few years at this point.

Thus, April 2016 was the turning point for Ortiz. Several factors helped his cause. First, that month saw most of the elite jockey colony at Aqueduct move to Keeneland’s meet in Lexington, Ky. For those who aren’t aware, Keeneland, founded in 1936, is a premier boutique track that only runs two months out of the year. It attracts the top horses, trainers, owners, watchers and of course, jockeys (try the burgoo btw if you visit, it’s excellent). The exodus of Castellano, Johnny V (Velazquez) and Luis Saez freed Ortiz from the specter of excellent turf jockeys (Castellano is a turf wizard). His April stats on the turf were gaudy, winning 11 races in the month. He honed his skills and looked for opportunities.

Turf racing isn’t like running on the dirt, as it’s the oldest form of running, originating in Britain. It’s more strategic, requires more patience and jockeying is a central requirement — ironic to say the least. Like painting a masterpiece on canvas, the race has many layers to it. In general, pundits talk about pace, but that’s old school chatter. Turf racing can have incredibly slow fractions (the times taken at the ¼ or ½ mile poles), which would normally support the argument that horses on the lead should win. But, this isn’t always the case.

Grass runners can come from any spot in the field and win, whereas jockeys that can ride the turf well are few and far between. At any given meet, which could last for 2-3 months depending on the location and the weather, turf conditions vary widely. Keeneland meets can be a total wash and off-the-turf for much of April, while Southern California rarely has wet grass. Traditionally though, Kentucky and New York bred horses and the races that they engage in along the East Coast are tougher than the fields out West.

After the 2016 Derby, Ortiz continued to mold and shape his career. The New York competition heated up with the return of Castellano, as the NYRA circuit moved to Belmont Park. There, Ortiz picked up some important turf mounts. Trainers, like Mike Maker, Bill Mott, Shug McGaughey and Brian Lynch began taking notice of his prowess. Soon, horses like Ironicus, Bigger Picture, Suffused and of course, Oscar Performance, could be included as his charges. Suddenly, the turf opened new opportunities that were not there before.

Ortiz used his experience on the NYRA turf courses (Aqueduct, Belmont and possibly the most famous and oldest, Saratoga) to hone his turf racing abilities. He piloted almost 600 mounts in all classes of turf races. He was like a surgeon that worked the ER shift, then moved to GP duty and still made his rounds to all his patients.

The turf course became his proving ground. In 2016, male horses that Ortiz rode yielded wins at a 29 percent clip at the stakes level, a solid return compared to 11 percent the previous year. His influence on female horses at the same class was equally impressive, rising from a lowly 2 percent to 27 percent. By the fall, Ortiz had positioned himself to make a major impact at the All-Star Game of horse racing, the two-day Breeders’ Cup. There, he won two races, including a major victory on the Santa Anita turf aboard Oscar. The year ended by earning a ticket to the jockey colony at Gulfstream Park.

No longer ensconced at the frozen sealed track at Aqueduct, now Ortiz could further his turf career by riding on the grass almost every day of the meet. This set his career in motion.

The story of how Ortiz became an Eclipse Award winner and one of the world’s most famous jockeys was not through a meteoric rise, nor was it based solely on family ties or legacy — certainly, those were integral. We might be reminded of Occam’s razor, as the easiest explanation might be best.

Steadily, he worked on his turf skills. He maneuvered, bided his time, looked for opportunities, tried the rail, cut to the four-path and has endured some of the toughest grass racing that the NYRA offers. That’s what turf racing does. It’s different and special.

In the end, Ortiz adhered to what writer and cultural observer Malcolm Gladwell called the 10,000-hour Rule in his smash hit book “Outliers: The Story of Success”. To get results, Gladwell says you must practice effectively. That’s how Jose Ortiz became a great jockey; first, he became a turf jockey.

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