Heading into the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby (GI), jockeys Irad and Jose Ortiz, have their own version of “Can You Top This?” going on in the horse-racing universe.
The biggest prize is out there for the taking Saturday at Churchill Downs, when a full field of 20 three-year-olds burst from the starting gate in the Run for the Roses. The brothers Ortiz (Irad, 26; Jose, 25) are aboard two of the top contenders as each attempts to add the title of Derby winner to already spectacular resumes.
“It’s a dream to win the Derby,’’ said Jose, who rides Wood Memorial winner Tacitus, the well-bred Juddmonte Farms son of top sire Tapit trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott. “I think we both have very good chances.”
Irad, meanwhile, picked up the mount on Improbable when Hall of Famer Mike Smith chose to ride Omaha Beach, the likely favorite for the 1 ¼-mile Derby. (Omaha Beach has since scratched.)
Improbable, owned by the same crew who campaigned Triple Crown winner Justify last year (WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Starlight Racing), ran second in the Rebel (GII) and second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby (GI) — with Jose aboard — in his two starts this year.
“Irad, Jose, they’re first-call riders,’’ said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who also will send out 2-year-old champion Game Winner and Santa Anita Derby (GI) winner Roadster in the Derby. “I have a lot of confidence in Irad. We’re lucky to have him.’’
Irad likes his chances, even though he’ll be riding Improbable for the first time.
“He’s a nice horse, he has a good trainer, so we’ll see what happens,” he said. “It’s very exciting. I’ve got a lot of good support from the owners and trainers.’’
Jose, who has been aboard several Derby contenders (he won the UAE Derby with Plus Que Parfait), has been with Tacitus from the start.
“I knew he had to be a champion when I first jumped on him,’’ said Jose, who has guided Tacitus to three wins in four starts. “I love everything about him. He’s got a great stride and he’s very athletic. ”
All that said, there’s always some friendly competition between these very likeable young men born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. First off, they’re close friends, and ride mostly at the same tracks. They chat all the time, but not about who’s going to beat who in what race.
“We’re competitive, but we don’t talk about racing against each other,’’ said Jose. “We’re both out there trying to win and ride the best we can.”
Irad backs up his brother. Earlier this year, he said they are competitive no matter what the game. They want to beat each but when they’re in the same race, “he’s just another jockey to me.’’
They’re among the best in the business, yet they’re both in their mid-20s and have only been riding for eight plus years. Nearly every year, one tops — or at least matches — the other’s accomplishments.
In 2017, Jose won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading rider with $27.3 million in earnings; Irad was third at $22.9 million. Jose also won his first Classic that year with a victory in the Belmont Stakes aboard Tapwrit.
No problem for Irad. First off, he had already won the 2016 Belmont Stakes with Creator for his first Classic. And in 2018, he won the Eclipse Award as top jockey with $27.7 million in earnings; Jose was second at $26.8 million.
You want Breeders’ Cup? Irad has five victories to his credit, including his first in 2014 aboard Lady Eli in the Juvenile Fillies Turf; Jose has two, with his first coming in 2016 aboard Oscar Performance in the Juvenile Turf.
They also made a little history together in 2014 when they became the third sibling tandem to ride in the same Kentucky Derby. The others were Chris and Gregg McCarron (1976) and Eddie and Sam Maple (1984).
Irad will be riding in his fourth Derby, his best finish a seventh-place aboard Hofburg last year. Jose has his fifth starter. He ran second last year with Good Magic. This will be their third Derby together.