When the starting gate opens for the 11TH race on Saturday, May 3, at Churchill Downs, two young brothers from Puerto Rico will have realized a childhood dream -- to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
By doing so, jockeys Jose and Irad Ortiz Jr. will become only the third pair of siblings to compete in the Derby, joining brothers Eddie and Sam Maple, who both rode in the 1984 edition of the race, and Chris and Gregg McCarron, who contested the race in 1976. And to underscore their achievement, at ages 20 and 21, respectively, the Ortiz brothers will also be the youngest to do so.
"It's a terrific accomplishment," said trainer Rick Violette, who will give Jose Ortiz a leg up aboard My Meadowview Farm's Samraat in the Derby. "It's probably very, very limited in any sport where two brothers have reached the top; it's not usual. It's a wonderful thing that two nice kids with enormous potential (have achieved this), and they're only going to get better."
The Ortiz brothers' rise to the highest level of the sport on the New York Racing Association (NYRA) circuit has been extraordinarily quick.
In 2011, Irad's first year in New York, he won 151 races from 1,016 starts and amassed $2,861,694 in earnings. The following year, his first without an apprentice allowance, he bested his win total by one despite riding 329 more horses, but his earnings skyrocketed to $9,134,832. In 2013, Irad solidified his status as a top jockey, riding 223 winners from 1,508 mounts and bolstering his earnings even further, to $14,344,538, fifth in the nation.
Jose's ascension to the upper echelon of riders has been just as swift. He booted home 98 winners out of 697 mounts in 2012, his first year in New York, and earned north of $3 million. In 2013, he won 224 races from 1,398 starts and earned $12,635,662, good for No. 11 among North American jockeys.
So far this year, the two are virtually deadlocked in purse money, with Jose at $4,187,322 and Irad at $4,125,984 through April 25. For the second year, they finished 1-2 in the Big A's inner-track jockey standings, with Irad edging his brother both times.
The expectation might be that such rapid success would change the brothers, but that has not been the case. They have earned just as much respect from local horsemen for their humility and work ethic off the track as they have for their skill in the afternoons in New York, where they have ridden almost exclusively.
"They still live very conservative lifestyles; they just love to ride," Violette noted. "And maybe that's (the key to their success). They're nice kids and they've maintained their balance through everything, which doesn't always happen."
As children, Irad and Jose would sneak into Hipodromo Camarero in Puerto Rico, and there they fell in love with the sport. They both attended their native country's Escuela Vocacional Hipica, a school for prospective jockeys. Among their idols are Angel Cordero Jr. and John Velazquez, both native Puerto Ricans and Hall of Famers, who now serve as mentors to the young jockeys. On the first Saturday in May, the brothers will have the opportunity to ride alongside their childhood hero in the Derby, as Velazquez has the mount aboard Intense Holiday.
"I'm very excited," said Irad Ortiz, who will be aboard the Gary Contessa-trained Uncle Sigh. "It's always been my dream to ride in the Derby and I really appreciate that the owners and Gary have confidence in me. It's a big opportunity."
The Kentucky Derby will be Irad's first time aboard Uncle Sigh, a decision that Contessa made in conjunction with Wounded Warriors Stables' Chip McEwen following the horse's disappointing fifth-place finish in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial. Naming a rider who has never ridden the horse or in a Derby may seem like a radical choice, but the owner and trainer are fully confident they have the man for the job.
"He's a very good rider," Contessa remarked. "He's cool under fire and makes good decisions. He's got the eye of the New York trainers."
Contessa, like Violette, was also very impressed by what the brothers are on the verge of achieving.
"It's pretty cool," the trainer said. "It's kind of a long shot. You think about all the jockeys, trainers, and owners trying to make it to the Derby. I mean, just getting into the Derby with a horse is 1 in 24,000. It's a tremendous accomplishment."
Taking things one step further, Irad and Jose will both be riding New York-breds, a testament to the burgeoning New York breeding program.
"It's a great development for the program," said Len Riggio, who owns and operates My Meadowview Farm. "The emergence of Uncle Sigh and Samraat is great for New York and NYRA, and it affirms what we already know -- this program is working; it's doing everything it was intended to do. It's creating jobs and interest in the sport."
Although natives of Trujillo Alto in Puerto Rico, both Irad and Jose have become New Yorkers as well. They share a house five minutes from Belmont Park, and spend most of their evenings watching replays of the days' races, playing video games and rooting for the local pro teams. Although Irad has ridden at Keeneland, this will mark the brothers' first trip to Churchill Downs.
"The Derby has been my dream," said Jose Ortiz, echoing the words of his brother. "And now it's coming true."