Derby Opportunity a Dream Come True for Ortiz Brothers

The Life

Brothers Jose Ortiz (left) and Irad Ortiz Jr. both will have their first-ever Kentucky Derby mounts on May 3 at Churchill Downs. (Photo by Adam Mooshian/NYRA)

When Irad and Jose Ortiz break from the Churchill Downs starting gate in the featured race on Saturday, May 3, they’ll become just the third set of brothers to ride in the same Kentucky Derby in the race’s 140-year history.

The Ortiz brothers will join Eddie and Sam Maple in 1984 and Chris and Greg McCarron in 1976 as siblings who competed against each other in the Kentucky Derby. While that’s certainly a source of pride for the budding young superstars - Irad is 21 and Jose is just 20 - the “Ortiz Bros.” are even more excited about the fact that they’re the first Puerto Rican brothers to accomplish the feat.

Irad was recently tabbed as the rider of Derby longshot Uncle Sigh, who is owned by Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony Robertson and trained by Gary Contessa. His younger brother finds himself in the more desirable, if not more pressure-packed, role as the regular jockey of one of the race favorites in Samraat, who is owned by My Meadowview Farm and trained by Rick Violette.

The brothers are extremely close when away from the track, but they made it pretty clear to America's Best Racing’s Dan Tordjman that they are relentless competitors when they’re at the track and riding in the same race.


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

Just how deep does their competitive spirit run? How confident is each brother in his Kentucky Derby mount? What would it mean to them to win the Kentucky Derby? They answered all of those questions more in the following interview:

Dan Tordjman: You both just came back from a short trip to Puerto Rico earlier this week. What was that like? How are friends and family reacting to both of you being in the Kentucky Derby?

Irad Ortiz Jr.: Everybody is very happy there. We even went to the racetrack there and everybody was excited. The news there, a famous channel in Puerto Rico, did an interview with me and my brother as “the first brothers from Puerto Rico going to the Derby.” I’m very excited and I know my brother is, too. So, hopefully we can do something good.

Jose Ortiz: Yeah, everybody is happy right now. Everybody is excited. My parents are going to be there, in Kentucky. They’re coming in Friday night. They’ll come and support us. It’s good to have someone to support you, like your father and mother. And me and Irad support each other, so we’re going to be OK.

Tordjman: What does it mean for you to be able to ride in your first Kentucky Derby and to do it with your brother?

Irad: It’s very special for us … very, very special. We are the third brothers in history to do this and I’m very happy. Thank God we’re here healthy and that the owners and trainers are giving us a chance to do it. It’s a dream for us to do this right now and that they’ve let us do this. We want thank everybody who has helped us.

Jose: Very exciting, especially in Puerto Rico, too. We’re the first Puerto Rican brothers to ride the Derby, so it feels good.

Tordjman: Are you nervous? Even a little?

Irad: (Smiles) Not yet. I’m good right now. I’m very calm. We’ll see what happens. I’m just watching some of the races [replays of Uncle Sigh’s races] and just hoping my horse will be sound and go 100-percent into this race.

Tordjman: Jose, how about you? Have you been able to sleep at night?

Jose: (Laughing) Oh yeah, I’ve been sleeping very good.

Tordjman: No nerves at all?

Jose: Not yet. Maybe when we get closer there will be some nerves, but not yet.

Tordjman: Jose, how excited are you about Samraat’s chances to win the Kentucky Derby?


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

Jose: My horse is working really good. He’s a nice horse. He’s run six times and won five of them. So, I like my horse. He’s got a pretty good chance. You know, there were some scratches [from the Kentucky Derby field] - Constitution scratched, Cairo Prince scratched. So, I hope my horse can make the [Kentucky Derby’s 1 1/4-mile] distance, and I think he can go. Last time [in the Wood Memorial Stakes], he ran very good at a 1 1/8 miles. He kept fighting. He switched leads late but as soon as he did, he got up for second. He showed he had something more left. And he’s been training very good. Last week, he breezed a half a mile and was just stretching his legs and he looked beautiful. I was at the track watching him, and he did it very easily. Rick Violette has done a wonderful job with the horse, and I thank the owner for giving me an opportunity to ride him.

Tordjman: Irad, what about your horse? What do you think of Uncle Sigh and his chances in the race?

Eclipse Sportswire

Irad: He’s really a very nice horse. He ran with Samraat and he finished second twice [in the Withers and Gotham Stakes], by less than a length. Last time, I can’t count that race [Uncle Sigh finished fifth in the Wood Memorial] because he didn’t break well and he had some little problems. I hope that we see a change with him wearing blinkers now (Note: blinkers are typically put on horses to get them to focus late in a race and to ensure that they’re not intimidated by horses surrounding them). He can improve with the blinkers and he breezed very good last breeze, so I hope he’ll be good.

Tordjman: Unlike Jose, who has ridden Samraat in all six of his career starts, you haven’t ridden Uncle Sigh before, Irad. How did you land the ride and what was gong through your mind when you got the call? 

Irad: My agent talked to the trainer [Gary Contessa] and then my agent called me and said “we have a chance to ride Contessa’s horse.” I said, “I love [Uncle Sigh]. I want to ride him.” So, from there he went back to figure it out with the trainer and owner, and they let me ride the horse. It was unbelievable. My dream came true because if there was just one dream for me it’s riding in the [Kentucky Derby]. I’m very happy and I’m very excited.

Jose: Uncle Sigh is a nice horse, a really nice New York-bred [like Samraat]. I’m glad Irad is riding him. We beat him twice, three times - every time I ran with him, I beat him - but I respect him. He’s a nice horse.

Tordjman: Irad, what about your brother’s horse? He’s got a pretty good shot in the race. Are you trying to give Jose any advice on how to ride Samraat? Are you trying to help him out at all?

Irad: (Smiles) No. He’s very smart - a very smart guy and a very good jockey. I guess I don’t think there’s anything for me to say to him because I’ve only been racing for a few years. He knows the same things as me and I think we’re almost in the same spot with our horse racing [careers].

Tordjman: Talk to me about the competition aspect. I know you’re both super-competitive. Does that apply even more when you think of this race and the Kentucky Derby being on the line?

Jose: There’s competition between us everywhere (smiles). Right now, we’re fighting for the leading rider at the Aqueduct [Irad holds a slight edge going into the final week of the meet] and last year, too. So we are very competitive. We just want to win; he wants to win and I want to win. I root for him if I’m not riding the race, but if I’m in the race I want to beat him.

Irad: I’m very happy for Jose. He’s going to the Kentucky Derby and I’m going to the race, too. But when it comes to the race, I’m riding like he’s just another jockey. I just ride my race. If he’s down on the inside and I want to go in, I’ll go in. If I want to go to the outside, I’ll go out. It doesn’t matter who’s there. As long as I can do it safely and legally, I’m going to do what I can and not going to think if it’s Jose there or not Jose. I’m just going to ride my race.

Tordjman: But that’s your baby brother (laughing).

Irad: (Laughing) Yes, he’s my brother, but business is business and brothers are brothers. Outside the racetrack, he’s my brother; but when we come to the jock’s room, it’s another thing.


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

Tordjman: Have you guys leaned on some of the older guys, either the veterans in this jock’s room or anywhere else?

Jose: Yeah, I’ve talked to Johnny [Velazquez, a Puerto Rico native and Kentucky Derby-winning jockey] and Javier [Castellano] and [Hall of Famer] Mike Smith. They just said to relax and ride your race.

Irad: Yeah, Angel Cordero [the first Puerto Rican jockey to ever be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame] told me some things. He’s always very good with us. He’s like another grandpa for us. He told us that you’ve got to ride smart and be patient in the race a little bit, but you know, you have to have the horse - that’s the main thing.

Tordjman: You’ve also got to beat a horse named California Chrome. I’m guessing you guys are familiar with him.

Irad: Yes. He’s a very impressive horse. He’s the real deal, I think. It’s going to be tough to beat that horse, but you’ve got to be positive if you’re going to do it.

Jose: I’ve seen the videos. The other day he was breezing 47 seconds [for a half-mile] and he just looked like he was galloping around the track, thought maybe he was doing 50 or 51 seconds. He’s a nice horse, but let’s see. For me, California Chrome is the horse I respect [the most]. ... Samraat is still one of the top three in the Derby. Him and California Chrome have been some of the most consistent horses.

Tordjman: You’re both young, but you’ve also had a lot of success. Do you feel like your time is now or is all of this kind of just happening faster than you could’ve ever imagined?

Jose: Everything happened very quickly. It’s a dream come true right now, you know. We’re going to ride the Derby! And for it to be in the same year that we’re both going to be riding our first Derby together - Irad, this is the first Derby for him and this is the first Derby for me - so, yeah it’s very exciting for us. We’re just waiting, only [seven] more days.

Irad: It happened fast, I guess … a little bit. But I do work hard all of the time and, finally, thank God this race has come. I’ve got my first chance and this is very good for me and Jose. I’m very excited.

Tordjman: Finally, have you allowed yourself to imagine that moment? The moment when this story ends with you crossing the wire first and actually winning the Kentucky Derby?

Irad: No, no. You know, I’m positive and I want to win the race. But I can’t imagine how I’d act after I won that race, if I won that race. That would be awesome.

Jose: I want to win. If you win, being just 20 years old, you know, some jockeys have been riding 30 to 40 years and they haven't been able to get into the Derby. I’m just 20 and I’ve been riding for two years. Hopefully, I can go there Saturday and if I win, it’s just going to be awesome - a dream come true.


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