SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The National Football League staged a prime-time event when Peyton Manning used to oppose younger brother Eli in a battle of premier quarterbacks. Fans of the New York Racing Association enjoy a matchup of prominent siblings on an almost daily basis.
Jose Ortiz and his older brother, Irad, are certain to keep the Saratoga riding title in family hands for a third consecutive year as they vie for the lead in a hotly-contested race. Entering competition on Sunday, Jose led Irad in wins, 55-52, in what has become a runaway for the Ortiz siblings. John Velazquez, who once reigned supreme with five Saratoga crowns, ranked a distant third with 42.
As the brothers see it, they are both merely taking care of business. “I don’t think about it,” Jose said of their sibling rivalry. “I just have fun with it.”
Jose entered the 40-day Saratoga stand having won a second consecutive spring-summer meet at Belmont Park. No one will be surprised to hear that Irad was his closest pursuer, four wins behind Jose’s 65 victories.
Irad became the first Ortiz to earn a Saratoga riding title, accomplishing that in 2015 before Jose displaced him last year. A review of records dating to 1900 indicates they are the first brothers to each top the rider standings at the upstate New York track.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all is that they could continue to match successes like this for the next couple of decades. Jose turns 24 in October. Irad celebrated his 25th birthday last month. Each may be just beginning to show what he can do.
Irad was the first to win a Breeders’ Cup race, triumphing with Lady Eli in the Juvenile Fillies in 2014. Jose notched his first Breeders’ Cup score last November with Oscar Performance in the Juvenile Turf. Irad was the first to win a Triple Crown race, when Creator nipped Destin in a pulsating edition of the Belmont Stakes in 2016. Jose countered with a masterful ride that delivered Tapwrit to the winner’s circle in this year’s testing mile-and-a-half Belmont.
“He could not have given him a better trip,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “It was one of those rare occasions when you talk about a specific game plan and how you would like to see the race unfold and you have it unfold exactly the way you had drawn it up beforehand.”
And the beat goes on for brothers who were born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico and aspired to be jockeys as boys. One of their grandfathers, Irad, rode for a living, as did an uncle, Ivan. They share the same strong work ethic that was instilled by their parents, Vilma and Irad, at a young age.
“When we played baseball, we didn’t miss a game. We didn’t miss a practice,” Jose said. “If you want to get better, you have to be there, working at it.”
Family ties are nonexistent once they arrive for work. Jim Riccio Jr., Jose’s agent, describes the relationship as all business once the starting gate springs open.
“It’s professional, believe me,” he said. “I like Irad as a person, he’s a tremendous rider, but we want to beat him. I know it’s both ways there.”
They share a corner of the jockeys’ room at Saratoga. Both occupy themselves with studying past performances before the card begins. There is little, if any, time for conversation between races because there is such high demand for both. They rarely sit out.
“Whenever I win a race and come in, he congratulates me,” Jose said. “Whenever he wins, I say, ‘Good job.’“
When Jose swept five races on Aug. 21 – none of his mounts was favored – Irad was as happy for him as if he had accomplished the feat himself. He greeted Jose with a hug and kiss at the end of the big afternoon.
“After the day is over,” Irad said, “we go home and we are brothers.”
Editor’s note: Jose Ortiz wrapped up his second consecutive riding title at Saratoga when Engage won Race 6 on Monday’s closing Labor Day card. He finished with 58 wins. Irad Ortiz won Race 7, the Bernard Baruch Handicap, aboard Heart to Heart and finished in second place overall with 53 wins.