By Lynne Snierson
Manny Franco was a year behind Jose Ortiz at Puerto Rico’s famed jockey school. A few years later, the 25-year-old is on the verge of joining the Eclipse Award winning rider and older brother and two-time champion jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., at the head of the class of North American riders.
Franco, who was an instant success when he began his career in New York in 2013, is among the new stars on the national scene.
The owner of six individual riding titles at Belmont Park and Aqueduct is already one of the go-to jockeys on New York’s tough-as-nails circuit. On Saturday, he’ll be aboard 6-5 favorite Tiz the Law in the field of 10 for the 152nd running of the $1 million Belmont Stakes (G1).
He isn’t shying away from the national spotlight, either.
“Every jockey wants to be me right now. I am so happy to have this opportunity. I have confidence in the horse, and in me, too. We have to get it done,” he said via a Twitter post.
Tiz the Law will be Franco’ first Belmont Stakes mount, but not his first in a Triple Crown race. He was aboard Tencendur, the 17th place finisher at 52-1 in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, and Spinoff, who also went off at 52-1 and was 18th in last year’s Derby.
Tiz the Law, whom he piloted to victory in the Champagne (G1) at Belmont last October and the Holy Bull (G3) and the Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park this year, is a legitimate favorite.
“I love that horse. I think we have the best horse in the race,” Franco said this week.
Should Franco, a finalist for the 2017 Eclipse Award as top apprentice rider, find himself in the winner’s circle he will equal an accomplishment by both Ortiz brothers. Irad won the 2016 Belmont with Creator for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and Jose followed one year later aboard Tapwrit for trainer Todd Pletcher.
“I like Manny. He’s athletic, he’s young, he’s smart. I don’t think he has any fear in him or anything like that. He goes in and does the best he can do. I think he’s a fine rider,” trainer Barclay Tagg, who trains the New York-bred Tiz the Law for the Sackatoga Stable partnership, told the Daily Racing Form before the Florida Derby.
In that race, Tiz the Law and Franco stalked the leaders before taking complete command entering the lane. At the eighth pole Franco gave the son of Constitution two reminders with his left-handed whip, and then geared him down from the 16th pole to the finish in a 4 ½-length victory.
The ride on Tiz the Law that day left plenty in the colt’s tank and garnered praise from many quarters. A win in the Belmont would boost the stock and the profile of Franco, who captured his first Breeders’ Cup race aboard Sharing in the Juvenile Fillies Turf last fall, even higher.
Moreover, he has the chance for a tremendous day with Tagg, who won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes (G1) but missed in the Belmont with Sackatoga Stable’s Funny Cide. The trainer will also give him a leg up on Pleasant Orb in the Acorn (G1) and on Highland Glory in the Wonder Again (G3) on the Belmont Stakes undercard.
Tagg told DRF that he likes the fact Franco has a good teacher in the Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who is the rider’s agent. Franco is a fast learner.
He won the Belmont riding title last fall and has ranked near the top of the rider standings, which are dominated by the Ortiz brothers, at that track over the past five years. He took down yet another Aqueduct winter meet title this year, despite the season being cut short on March 15 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though he could have stayed in Florida, where the tracks remained open for racing without spectators, he decided to return home to his girlfriend and then two-months-old daughter in New York and wait until racing resumed at Belmont. Still, in 2020 he’s racked up a record of 68-42-51 with purse earnings just shy of $4 million from 336 mounts through June 18.
But of all those mounts, Tiz the Law, who has accounted for two of his nine Grade 1 stakes wins, has to be his favorite.
“This horse means a lot to me,” said Franco, who hails from the same hometown in Puerto Rico as Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez, the jockey aboard Tap it To Win in the Belmont. “From the first time I got on him for the Champagne, we get along good.”
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.