Ortiz brothers make the Derby a family affair

April, 29, 2014
04/29/14
11:28
AM ET

It isn't Affirmed vs. Alydar, Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer or anything else approaching that in terms of magnitude.

Yet one of the minor subplots in Saturday's Kentucky Derby involves the presence of two New York state-bred horses that spent the winter and early spring butting heads and will meet again in the Run for the Roses -- only this time with even more of a rivalry attached to it.

So far, much like Affirmed in the Triple Crown, Samraat has gotten the better of his Empire State foe Uncle Sigh. In the Withers and Gotham at Aqueduct, they finished 1-2 both times, with Samraat winning by a length and then a neck under 20-year-old regular rider Jose Ortiz.

Following their photo finish in the Gotham, they met again in the $1 million Wood Memorial. They were not the main stars on April 5, but Samraat once again finished in front of Uncle Sigh as he wound up second -- his lone loss in six career starts -- while Uncle Sigh was a troubled fifth.

Now, in Round 4, there's a new dimension to this grudge match, as trainer Gary Contessa has named Irad Ortiz to ride Uncle Sigh on the first Saturday of May. Yes, 21-year-old Irad is indeed Jose's brother -- his older brother by 417 days.

And so the 140th Derby will mark the first time two brothers have ridden in the race since 1984, when Eddie Maple was third and Sam Maple was 13th, and just the fourth time in the modern era.

Like the Maples, one of the Ortiz brothers might not land in the winner's circle, but with the two young jockeys both riding in the Derby for the first time, it promises to be an unforgettable day in the household of brothers from Puerto Rico who are quickly making a name for themselves on the ultracompetitive New York circuit.

"The Derby has been my dream," Jose Ortiz said. "And now it's coming true."

Ditto for Irad, who has enjoyed slightly more success in his career than his brother. Irad was the leading rider at Aqueduct's inner-track meet for a second straight year in 2014, edging his brother each time.

Irad started riding first, debuting in 2011 and enjoying immediate success. He picked up 151 wins in his first year then enjoyed a richer level of success in 2012, when he won 152 races but saw his earnings jump from $2.8 million to $9.1 million, the 17th-best figure among all jockeys. Last year was even more of a breakthrough as he won 223 races and earned $14.3 million, finishing 11th nationally in wins and fifth in earnings.

Jose started his career in 2012 and reeled off 98 wins. Last year was memorable for him as well as he edged his brother in wins with 224 while earning $12.6 million, putting him 10th and 11th, respectively, on those two national lists.

This year, Irad is back in front with 88 wins and earnings of $4,258,268 (sixth nationally through April 27), but Jose is right behind with 78 wins and earnings of $4,203,856 (seventh).

With numbers like that, it's hardly surprising that New York trainers have taken notice of the Ortizes and developed trust in them, even in pressure-packed situations like the crucible that is the Kentucky Derby.

"It's probably very, very limited in any sport where two brothers have reached the top," said Rick Violette, who trains Samraat. "It's a wonderful thing that two nice kids with enormous potential [have achieved this], and they're only going to get better.

"They still live very conservative lifestyles. They just love to ride, 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."

Irad will be replacing Corey Nakatani on Uncle Sigh, but Contessa had no reservations in switching from a veteran rider with 15 Derby appearances to a new kid on the block.

"He's a very good rider," Contessa said. "He's cool under fire and makes good decisions. He's got the eye of the New York trainers."

Both brothers will be under millions of watchful eyes Saturday, yet Irad is thankful to receive a chance to compete in the Derby at such an early stage in his career.

"It's always been my dream to ride in the Derby, and I really appreciate that the owners [Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony Robertson] and Gary have confidence in me," he said. "It's a big opportunity."

Two New York state horses with a joint history ridden by two close-knit brothers who share a home on Long Island. Say what you want about the 140th Kentucky Derby, but in some corners of the world it will indeed be a family affair.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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