HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, December 5, 2021 – The big racing weekend that witnessed the end of the traditional New York racing season and the first Saturday of Gulfstream Park’s Championship Meet which began Friday commenced on a decidedly negative note.
Sometimes, the Twitterverse gets it right, and the vitriol that addressed out-of-control “race riding” was spot on, particularly as it applied to Irad Ortiz Jr., one of the sport’s brightest stars.
And unless stewards everywhere begin to rein in his aggressiveness, something very bad is likely to occur as a result of Ortiz Jr’s dangerous envelope-pushing.
All sports fans are aware that “the Jordan Rules” are alive and well in professional league where they play for pay. Star athletes receive deferential treatment, getting the benefit of every doubt.
Injuries and accidents are a part of any sports endeavor, particularly on the professional level when million-dollar athletes compete against each other at the highest levels of their sport.
But until officials sits down with Ortiz Jr. and make him mindful of his reckless win-at-all-cost race-rides, one of his colleagues is in danger of becoming the next permanently disabled jockey, or worse.
Again, professional sports can be a dangerous business and big paydays reward that fact of life. The difference with respect to racing is that other professional athletes don’t have ambulance trailing them on the field of play.
The incident that drew Racing Twitter to their key pads with their all-caps keys permanently depressed began with Friday’s eighth race at Aqueduct Race Track.
Ortiz was aboard Gran Cacique which, according to the official chart footnote, stated an incident in terms horseplayers seldom if ever see. I know I haven’t in nearly five decades:
“GRAN CACIQUE angled in with reckless abandon and bumped Ragtime Blues at the five-eighths and bumped him hard which caused that foe to lose his rider …”
“… Following a stewards inquiry, GRAN CACIQUE was disqualified from second and placed last for interference … “
In this instance the public was protected and Omar Hernandez Moreno apparently escaped serious injury. What will happen next time?
On Saturday, Ortiz Jr. race rode in aggressive fashion once again, albeit not as egregiously dangerous, in the Remsen Stakes. And this time his mount was not disqualified. Again, per Equibase footnote:
“MO DONAGEL … rallied outside to take the lead outside at the furlong marker, moved in closer to the runnerup under a right-handed crop at the sixteenth pole, had the rider put the crop away and throw repeated exaggerated crosses with the left rein near the face of the runnerup and narrowly prevailed while bumping with that rival near the wire …”
Further, “ZANDON dug in gamely on the inside in the final furlong … had the winner’s rider attempt to intimidate him late then bumped approaching the wire and just missed in a determined effort …”
I watched the head-on of the stewards’ view repeatedly. I noticed all the above, including a protruding left elbow in the area where contact was made a jump or two before the finish although not noted officially.
Either way, had I been an official I would have disqualified the winner who went from the 4-path to the 2-path under right-handed urging and while Zandon drifted out ever so slightly, the contact made was initiated by the outside horse under very aggressive handling.
This is not meant to solely single out Irad Ortiz Jr. All top jockeys employ “race riding” tactics. But Ortiz does it at virtually every opportunity. The whole racetrack, from the backstretch to the betting window, knows this.
So do racing’s stewards. Then this is America where celebrities are treated much differently. Many can and do get away with anything, sometimes including murder.
There’s a scene in Days of Thunder in which pit boss Robert Duvall tells star stockcar driver Tom Cruise who complained that a driver needlessly slammed into him.
“He didn’t slam into you,” said Duvall’s character, “he rubbed you, and son, rubbing is racing.”
The thing is Thoroughbred racing is not NASCAR. There are no seat belts and innocent thousand-pound animals are involved.
There is no room for over-aggressiveness in horse racing. The physical stakes for all parties involved are much too high. What this game needs from its riders now and going forward is more passenger, less jet-pilot.
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