By Noel Michaels
The Saratoga meet is off and running and along with the best horses and top trainers, it’s no surprise that there’s a collection of many of the best jockeys in the country.
Where the top trainers and best horses go, the most in-demand jockeys usually follow. The title of leading rider at Saratoga perhaps carries more prestige than any other riding title, and the competition is fierce.
Last year, for example, it was a three-way race between Irad Ortiz, Jr., Jose Ortiz, and Joel Rosario. It came down to the Ortiz brothers, who separated themselves in the final week (Labor Day weekend) with Irad winning out 58-58 over Jose. Rosario was third with 48 wins. Luis Saez, who had been relatively quiet the first half of the 2020 meet, was the hottest jockey during the final four weeks and finished with 45 wins.
If you go back the previous years, it was Jose Ortiz who was dominant in 2019 with 60 victories (Irad was second with 53). Irad won the Saratoga title in 2018 with 52 wins.
That brings us to the 2021 Saratoga meet, where we expect the Ortiz brothers to battle it out for the title; with Rosario and Saez dueling for third place.
Through the opening two weeks of the met, we can already see Irad Ortiz, Saez, and Jose Ortiz opening a lead on the rest of the jockeys. Jose and Saez have 16 wins apiece, and Irad has 14.
Rosario got off to a slow start opening week with two wins from 24 mounts after missing opening Saturday to ride Haskell Day at Monmouth but is up to eight wins from 51 mounts.
Ten of Irad’s 14 wins have come aboard favorites, and so it is currently Saez and Jose Ortiz who are the far better bets. The average payoff of Jose Ortiz’s 16 winners is a very healthy $11.10, while Saez’s average win price has been a solid $10.20.
This kind of performance is no surprise to those who remember Saez’s exceptional month of August at Saratoga last season. Average win payoffs of $11.10 and $10.20 on the two leading riders at the meet underscores what a great betting meet Saratoga is, because you have so many full and evenly-matched fields and so much good competition.
There were 34 turf races run at Saratoga through the two opening weeks, and the results tell a story that will likely replay throughout the season, with the four jockeys winning most of the turf races. Irad Ortiz led all riders with seven turf wins, with six wins for Jose Ortiz and Rosario, and five for Saez. Tyler Gaffalione, Jose Lezcano, Javier Castellano, and Manny Franco each won two turf races so far.
On the main track, a much wider variety of jockeys win plenty of races, but currently it is Saez and Jose Ortiz who are winning the most Saez had 11 and Jose Ortiz 10, each with a 24% win clip. Irad Ortiz owns seven dirt wins, but his win percentage is 14% this year.
Also winning lots of race on the main track are Ricardo Santana and Gaffalione, who both have six dirt wins over the first two week. Santana rides first call for trainer Steve Asmussen, who racks up most of his Spa winners on the dirt. Gaffalione, meanwhile, rides for trainer Brad Cox among others, and Cox is on fire early in the meet with five winners from his first 11 starters (45%).
The jockey/trainer combination with Santana and Asmussen alone should be enough to land Santana in this season’s top 10 overall. Be careful how you bet Asmussen and Santana, however, since Santana was 0-for-16 on the grass. His dirt mounts have won 6 of 26 for 23%.
Irad Ortiz maintains his dominance by riding first call for the top trainers at Saratoga – Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher. Meanwhile, Javier Castellano seems to have fallen out of favor with those top barns and therefore will see his number of winners to drop off at the meet. John Velazquez, long tied to Pletcher as the barn’s go-to rider, no longer gets many of those mounts and is more likely to win for Wesley Ward these days. Johnny V is 1-for-29 at the meet so far, with the lone winner a $3.80 favorite. Velazquez may not be the force he once was at Saratoga, but nevertheless when the important stakes start turning up on the schedule, you can count on Velazquez being aboard winners for a variety of top barns.
Other jockey/trainer combos to watch include Rosario, who rides first call for turf ace trainer Christophe Clement, and Saez, who rides so many live horses for so many different trainers, including H. James Bond, who points much of his stable for the Saratoga season and always wins a lot of races at the meet.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.