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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


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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17 Responses

  1. 100% agree. Nobody is disputing the fact that Irad Ortiz Jr. is a great jockey. He’s just got Breeders Cup weekend outstanding rider yet again, and has won 3 straight Eclipse Awards & in my opinion probably deserves a 4th this year (Rosario has had racing media behind him all year pushing for an Eclipse and it would be shocking if he didn’t get it – and he certainly has a case ). Irad’s ride on Letruska beating Monomoy Girl might be the ride of the year, and if not, he’s got plenty of others to nominate.

    All of the above aside, I too fear that if the stewards don’t put him in check soon, someone is going to end up permanently disabled or dead- either another rider or even himself. Sometimes it looks like a flat out suicide mission and it is scary to witness. I’m sure there is more than a little air of intimidation in the jocks room between the accomplishments giving him alpha standing, and incidents like the KO punch out of Paco Lopez – which judging by the quality of his punching form, isn’t exactly the first time this guy has thrown hands. The fact that he has been throwing ultra aggressive line stepping tactics at John Velazquez lately has to make the rest of the room think there is nothing any of them could do to get him to lay off. So then he adds the excess leaning in on opponents in the stretch, bulling his way through to create his own opening that flat out isn’t there with no response from the stewards, a few times that literally looked like attempts to squeeze an inside opponent into going over the rail, and now what appears to be ever increasing incidents of elbowing. They had let him enjoy the Jordan Rules that the sport elites get, but unlike most of them, instead of enjoying the edge and strategically calling on it when most needed, he has never stopped pushing the line further and further out ever since.

    You do not see this too often and you say it even more rarely, but there is such a thing as wanting to win too badly. When it looks like you don’t really care whether yourself or your fellow rider might end up on a stretcher being rushed to Jamaica Hospital, we have reached that point. Its safe to say that he is clearly the best jockey in North America, but he already was before this behavior got so much more dangerous; it’s time he is made to sit for a real suspension that he will feel, and it might help if any of the all time greats could sit him down and talk to him a little. Maybe words coming from Ramon Dominguez would have more effectiveness than the head shaking of an intimidated apprentice who is afraid of him, or some outsider who can’t relate to what it takes to be the best rider in the sport.

    1. Doc, think it would take more than that. Horsemen need to be proactive on the topic of race riding. As stated, Irad is not alone in this; “rubbing” has become standard procedure in nearly every stretch battle. “I wanted him to see the other horse,” done to bring out a horse’s competitive nature. But often it is reduced to rough riding, needlessly risking injury to horse and rider. May the best horse win, period.

  2. Thanks for the input Chuck. Hopefully your words will not fall on deaf ears. This kind of “race riding” needs to stop…

    1. Chuck, it’s good to know that good judgment and fairness still has its place in this game is good minded people take the appropriate action when the need arises, as in this case. Thirty days should send a strong message and seems appropriate in that there were two offenses.

      But you’re right. “Careless” is a euphemism for reckless in this instance.

      1. JP,
        I wish I too could vigorously applaud these stewards, but it looks to me as if the situation this time was finally too egregious to ignore; not unlike the Servis/Navarro tapes.

        Where were they all the other times those irate over Irad expressed concern? LOL

        Without uniform standards to support the unambiguous will to maintain integrity, there will always be wriggle room among the various jurisdictions, and even among stewards working together.

        Ortiz, Jr. and Baffert are not bigger than the game, and Churchill Downs shouldn’t be either.

        1. I, understand your pique with the system and its unequal means of doling out appropriate punishment.

          Everything to which you refer ultimately led to the creation of HISA. If nothing else, standard rules and practices should provide a level of fairness via objectivity of a national body.

          Your closing line and something about great minds? I tweeted about four days ago re Mr Baffert that in nearly 50 years I’ve learned that no one is bigger than the game. Ultimately, when this all shakes out, we’ll see if that’s true…

  3. Just heard Medina Spirit died following a workout from a heart attack. Big news and kinda hope they leave his “number” up in KY Dy since this is a sad ending for a very good racehorse. Look forward to your commentary on MS and his short career.

    1. C, will get to this over the weekend as more facts emerge. No instant analysis on this as we’ve had much to say about this issue, and about Mr. Baffert, in the past.

  4. Jose Ortiz is going to stay and ride at Aqueduct this winter. Wants to stay close to his kids, the purses are large and he wants to ride a lot &win a riding title, and a lot of his regular clients he rides first call for will be keeping strings here.

  5. Something a little strange going on, what with 30 days for Irad, Johnny deciding to winter in California, and Jose staying in New York. I’m sure he’ll fly south when the name-brand three-year-olds come calling. Interesting developments…

  6. Yes absolutely he will be going down there for important stakes. And Irad will certainly be riding at GP, so perhaps it’s as simple as Jose and Irad wanted to take a little break from competing against each other daily.

    It reminds me of the story of how Jimmy Riccio became Jose’s agent; don’t remember if I heard it on Andy Serling’s podcast, or a different one. Anyhow, Irad had asked someone – was either a trainer or another agent – for a recommendation for an agent for his brother, and that person suggested Riccio. So they set up a meeting for Jose and Riccio; Jose sits there silently as Irad grills Riccio, firing questions at him. When they were finished with the meeting, they shake hands and Irad turns to Jose and says “he is going to be your agent”.

  7. Interesting anecdote Doc. Love the background. HRI is fortunate to have you contributing your insights here, thank you…

    1. Thank you. I went back out of curiosity to the DQ in the 2019 JCGC, and it seems like the same things Irad did in the stretch to intimidate Code of Honor and to throw Code’s jockey into panic mode, are a lot of the same things he has recently been getting away with. The inconsistent handling of him by the stewards is also something they should look inward on, while they are sitting Irad for 30 days.

      1. Doc, it’s human nature I suppose, especially in sports, where athletes will push the envelope as far as they can to gain an edge, until some regulator tells them to stop and/or punish them accordingly.

        While messages are mixed since the industry privately hates the idea of HISA and will resist to the end, establishing uniformity of rules and punishment to bring badly needed consistency to officiating.

        Meanwhile, Irad is listed on GP mounts today and tomorrow. Either they are allowing him to fill prior commitments, the sanction starts later, and for Irad the timing couldn’t be better. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year…

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