Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. Reclaims Championship Meet Crown
Finishes Off Dominating Season in Spectacular Style
Saffie Joseph Jr. Successfully Defends Training Title
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Irad Ortiz Jr. finished off a remarkably successful Championship Meet at Gulfstream Park in spectacular fashion this weekend, deftly guiding Forte to a victory in Saturday’s $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa that was as gritty as the late-rallying decision was thrilling on an afternoon during which he rode six winners, including four stakes.
With three more winning rides on Sunday’s closing day program, Ortiz finished the Championship Meet with 128 victories to reclaim the jockey title for the elite winter Thoroughbred session. Ortiz’s total wins is particularly impressive considering that he fell just 12 wins short of his own record of 140 achieved during the 2020-2021 season that ran three weeks longer.
Ortiz, who had captured three consecutive Championship Meet titles before being dethroned by Luis Saez last season, ran away with this year’s title while finishing 57 wins ahead of the Saez, who finished three wins ahead of third-place Jose Ortiz.
“I’ve had big support from the owners and trainers. They support me. Thanks to them. If I don’t have their help, I can’t do anything,” Irad Ortiz Jr. said Sunday. “At the same time, my agent Steve (Rushing) has done a great job. He does everything he can, every single day to get horses for me. I thank God for keeping me healthy and being available to do this every single day.”
The 30-year-old Ortiz, a four-time Eclipse Award winner, rode the winners of 14 stakes, including Atone, the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) champion, as well as Forte, who established himself as the solid early favorite for the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1) with a Florida Derby score in the face of considerable adversity that followed a dominating win in the Fountain of Youth (G2). Ortiz’s uncanny ability to work out a winning trip under the most adverse conditions were on full display in the Florida Derby, in which his 1-5 favorite was forced to race from far back while taking considerable kickback and under steady pressure to get back into the race and overtake Mage by a length while making up several lengths in the stretch.
“I was asking my horse on the first turn and backside too. The last turn he kept giving me more every time I asked him,” Ortiz said. “Every step of the way I’m on top of him asking him and he kept giving it to me, giving it to me. I was expecting him to say, ‘It’s over. I’ve given you everything.” But he has a big heart and he never quit. I asked him in the stretch and he gave me another gear. I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, what a horse.”
Ortiz, who had a 28-percent strike rate during the Championship Meet, easily led the purses-won standings with $7.39 million.
“I try to prepare as much as I can for every horse, every day. I just like to prepare myself to get to know every single horse to get an advantage, that’s important,” Ortiz said.
Saffie Joseph Jr. made a successful title defense of the Championship Meet by a 47-41 margin over Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. The 36-year-old Barbados native ended Pletcher’s streak of 18 Championship Meet titles last season while saddling 58 winners, including Florida Derby winner White Abarrio.
“Last year was huge because if was the first time we had done it. I think this one even means more to comeback and prove it again. It gives the whole team a lot of confidence,” Joseph said. “I have a lot of appreciation for all the owners’ support. It’s a blessing from God.”
Keeping his training title didn’t come easy.
“Todd really gave us a fight for this. Last year, we always had the momentum. This year, we weren’t separated by more than two wins most of the time. He went ahead by two in mid-February,” After that we got some momentum and were able to hold him off. It means a lot.”
Joseph’s stable will spread out during the spring and summer months to Keeneland, New York, Woodbine and likely Monmouth while maintaining a South Florida string of 80 horses.
While Pletcher fell short of reclaiming the training title, the Hall of Fame trainer enjoyed a banner Championship Meet capped by Forte’s stunning triumph in the Florida Derby. He led all trainers with a purses-won total of $3.59 million and saddled the winners of nine stakes.
Bruno Schickedanz led all owners with 11 winners.
The $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) set the tone for a memorable Championship Meet Jan. 28, when Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott saddled Art Collector for a dominating 4 ½-length triumph during the annual celebration of Thoroughbred racing, world-class entertainment, dining and fashion.
The Royal Palm Meeting at Gulfstream Park will get underway Thursday. Racing will be conducted four days a week, Thursday through Sunday, with a 12:40 p.m. first-race post time.