Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Given the immense talent and the extraordinary depth of the star-studded jockey colony competing at Saratoga, an interesting question arises.
Where does this group rank among the greatest of all time?
The talent begins with Irad Ortiz Jr. but hardly ends there. Ortiz swept three consecutive Eclipse Awards as North America’s leading rider from 2018 to 2020, a stretch matched only by Jerry Bailey, Ramon Dominguez and Javier Castellano since the awards were established in 1971. He recently topped the standings for Belmont’s spring-summer meet for his 19th New York Racing Association title. He registered 48 wins, one more than up-and-coming Dylan Davis.
Joel Rosario, 37, was chasing the record for earnings, stakes and graded-stakes wins before he fractured a rib on Dec. 2. He still settled for snapping Ortiz’s Eclipse streak with his first such award. Flavien Prat, who turns 30 on Aug. 4, hopes to follow that lead after joining Ortiz as Eclipse finalists for 2021. He moved his tack to New York not long ago after dominating on the West Coast. He is among the prime contenders to topple Luis Saez, whose 64 victories allowed him to prevail at last summer’s 40-day meet.
Jose Ortiz, a year younger than Irad at 28, began a string of Eclipse Awards for the family when he won in 2017. The fiercely competitive brothers accounted for the final two legs of this year’s Triple Crown series, with Jose delivering a masterful ride aboard Early Voting in the Preakness before Irad closed with a perfectly timed rush aboard Mo Donegal in the Belmont.
Asked how this jockey colony should be viewed, Jose replied, “Back in the day, we had some good jockeys here, too. I wouldn’t say best ever. But in the country right now, for sure.”
The room also features John Velazquez, 50, the all-time leader with more than $453 million in earnings. Javier Castellano, 44, is another formidable veteran. Rising star Tyler Gaffalione ships in after securing his eighth Churchill Downs riding title. Ricardo Santana Jr. topped Oaklawn Park’s standings every year from 2013 to 2018.
Velazquez all but sang Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” when he said, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.”
Opening day illustrated the depth of ability. Saez, Velazquez, Jose Lezcano, Kendrick Carmouche, Junior Alvarado, Irad Ortiz and Santana all reached the winner’s circle. Castellano rang up three victories.
“I would say the top 10 guys are elite,” said Ortiz.
The rugged competition is part of what convinced Prat to make the dramatic move of shifting coasts. “When you ride against good riders,” he said, “you step up your game.”
Prat’s addition elevated the colony in a big way. “Obviously, it makes it a lot tougher for everybody,” Velazquez said. “He’s a great rider. Very patient. He ran ride dirt, grass, in front, from behind, from everywhere.”
Davis recognizes that, race after race, the margin for error is slim to none. “You are just trying to ride a perfect race all the time,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to when you’re working with animals.”
Veteran agent Michael Migliore, who represents Davis, leans heavily toward New York in the 1980s in his search for the best set of riders of all time.
“You know what that colony would have did to these guys? Forget about it, man. They would have lit them up. That’s just my opinion,” said Migliore, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native.
That opinion is largely based on the tremendous respect he has for Angel Cordero Jr. “To me, Angel Cordero was the greatest rider ever,” Migliore said. “You ride against Angel Cordero, you better be on your ‘A’ game every race. He had more tricks than Houdini.”
He also lavished praise on Irad Ortiz. “Every race he’s got fire in him, man. It’s incredible to watch. It’s fun to watch,” Migliore said. “Sometimes he goes over the line, but that’s just his competitiveness to win.”
Migliore will always treasure his memories of the ’80s. “Compare the two colonies from now to back then? There’s no comparison, man,” he said.
Just one opinion, man.