Horowitz: Until It's Addressed, Irad Ortiz Jr.'s Riding Style Will Put Horses And Riders In Harm's Way - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Horowitz: Until It’s Addressed, Irad Ortiz Jr.’s Riding Style Will Put Horses And Riders In Harm’s Way

Life Is Good (outside) and Happy Saver battling in the Whitney

“Life is good” if you're Irad Ortiz Jr.

The three-time Eclipse Award winner  as outstanding jockey has won more races than anyone else in the United States in every year since 2017 and currently has more victories than any other rider in America in 2022.

These aren't just any wins. Through Aug. 20, 11 of the 30-year-old's victories have come in Grade 1 races this year, including two aboard a horse that happens to be named Life Is Good.

It's clear that Ortiz has figured out a winning formula. Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, that winning formula when it comes to sports includes getting an edge by exploiting a gray area that the best of the best either know how to do or how to get away with, again depending on your perspective.

For example, in basketball, it's sometimes that extra step when driving to the basket that doesn't get called for traveling by the referees. LeBron James has referred to it as the “crab dribble,” whatever that means. Although one thing it does mean is that LeBron is now the spokesperson for the GMC Hummer EV, which includes a “CrabWalk” mode.

Similarly, in horse racing, Irad—because, like LeBron, the truly great sports stars are recognized by their first names—has figured out how to swerve his horses toward the finish line, often getting in the way of the opposition, in a way that is generally deemed acceptable by the stewards, at least in the United States. I'm not sure if Ortiz has come up with a cute nickname for his riding technique, maybe something like the “dolphin swerve,” because it could land him a car commercial down the road.

Take Ortiz's ride in the homestretch on Life Is Good in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 6, for example. The Equibase chart, as unbiased a source as there is in horse racing, describes that Life Is Good “came under one pop of a right-handed crop at the furlong marker, was guided inward in front of HAPPY SAVER but with clearance shortly thereafter, kept finding while drifting out slightly under a strong-hand ride to the wire and prevailed under good handling.”

None of the description in the Equibase chart suggests that Ortiz did anything wrong, and neither did the stewards nor opposing jockeys find fault in Ortiz's maneuvers. But, putting them all together, they're contrary to the message the horse racing industry is trying to project about the wellbeing and safety of its two-legged and four-legged athletes. Here's why.

Because jockeys ride with short stirrups, their communication cues to their horses are not exactly subtle, as opposed to how dressage riders can adjust their horses' movements with the slightest change in position of their legs. So, it's pretty noticeable what actions Ortiz took in order to execute what were deemed to be legal maneuvers in horse racing with Life Is Good in the Whitney.

“Came under one pop of a right-handed crop at the furlong marker”: After multiple taps on the shoulder with the crop, Ortiz used a strong overhand right to Life Is Good's hind end. Ironically, this use of the whip is what has attracted the most debate when it comes to horse welfare, but it's the least egregious of Ortiz's actions. In fact, Life Is Good responded positively to the crop. The horse never broke stride and pressed further into the lead.

“Was guided inward in front of HAPPY SAVER but with clearance shortly thereafter”: Immediately after using the whip, Ortiz adjusted his weight in the saddle to his left and pulled the left rein wide, effectively opening a door for Life Is Good to shift to the inside. As soon as Life Is Good came in front of Happy Saver, John Velazquez had to switch paths on Happy Saver from the inside to the outside. Ortiz looked over his left shoulder, as if to admire what he had done.

“Kept finding while drifting out slightly under a strong-hand ride to the wire and prevailed under good handling”: Ortiz then looked over his right shoulder and saw Happy Saver to his outside. He quickly rebalanced himself and funneled Life Is Good back outward toward the new path of Happy Saver.

Was all of this really necessary? It secured the win for Life Is Good, but it came at the expense of forcing Life Is Good to shift his weight multiple times while the horse was fully exerting himself. That caused Happy Saver to switch paths as well. Yes, there was physically room for Life Is Good to move over both times, but that's kind of like saying there's physically room for that impatient driver to cut over into your lane on the freeway, regardless of whether you have to react or not. Eventually this type of maneuvering is going to cause a wreck.

In fact, this type of riding caused a wreck four days later when jockey Dylan Davis moved Montatham to the outside into the path of On Our Way Boyz in a starter allowance race at Saratoga on Aug. 10. The horses clipped heels, and On Our Way Boyz went down, unseating jockey Eric Cancel.

“All's it takes is a tick, especially on the turf,” analyst and jockey Gary Stevens said on the Saratoga Live broadcast. “It doesn't take much of a clipping of the rear heel of the horse in front of you with the front foot of your horse. They're out of sync. They're out of stride. And, you're going to hit the deck.”

What Gary then described as “ever so slightly, and like I said, it doesn't take much” would be considered by the NYRA stewards as “careless.” Montatham was disqualified after crossing the finish line first. The stewards suspended Davis for seven days.

“We've seen aggressive riding this meet,” Laffit Pincay Jr., the host of Saratoga Live and son of a riding legend, said about Davis on the broadcast in the aftermath of the incident. “These guys, they're some of the very best in the world. They want to win. There was nothing malicious about what happened there.”

The stewards saw a huge distinction between how Ortiz and Davis rode, the latter being deemed “careless” and worthy of a seven-day suspension. The NYRA broadcasters also saw a distinction, although in the opposite way. While Pincay said Davis' ride was “nothing malicious,” analyst and jockey Richard Migliore said about Ortiz's ride that he was “not a fan of this move” and “sometimes [Ortiz] just gets carried away.”

“You're on the best horse, you're going to win, the wire's in front of you, it's not to the left of you, it's not to the right of you,” Migliore said on the broadcast. “Making these horses move all their weight, or shift all their weight and momentum one direction, to me, this is when horses get injured.”

The key distinction is that, in the case of Life Is Good, no one clipped heels. So, Ortiz is free to continue riding like he does because he is on one side of what Gary described as “ever so slightly,” while Davis is on the other.

Horse racing's public image is in a precarious situation if “ever so slightly” is effectively what distinguishes the rides of Davis and Ortiz and how they're policed.

And, unfortunately, at the end of the day, it all comes down to image in horse racing. NYRA would not post the replay of the Davis race, although it's still viewable through the replay of the entire Saratoga Live broadcast.

Image is what's ultimately guiding the debate over the use of the whip in horse racing. At The Jockey Club Round Table held at Saratoga in the week following the rides by Ortiz and Davis, Swedish horse racing was celebrated because the whip was eliminated in the country.

“They're still fighting for the win. And it looks acceptable in my eyes,” Dennis Madsen, the head of racing for the Swedish Horseracing Authority said, summing up whip-less racing.

Horse racing has become too concerned about what “looks acceptable,” because the way Ortiz rides is more dangerous and harmful to horse welfare than the use of the whip. There is a hard line when it comes to whip use, where below a certain number is fine and above it is not. There should also be a hard line about maintaining a straight path in the homestretch when horse and rider are capable of doing so. Life Is Good did not maintain a straight path because Ortiz chose not to.

Unnecessary bullying or, the way Ortiz justified it in comments made to the NYRA press office, “I know if he felt somebody that he would give me another run and more,” should not warrant swerving into the path of other horses, regardless of whether there is physically enough room there or not.

At least the stewards in Great Britain felt this way when handing Ortiz a five-day suspension at Royal Ascot for not maintaining a straight path on Love Reigns in this year's Queen Mary Stakes. Ortiz made it a total of one day at Royal Ascot before coming under scrutiny for the same type of riding he's known for in the United States.


Granted there are other jockeys that do what Ortiz does, but he is the poster child for a type of riding that exploits a gray area that American stewards will seldom address. If basketball referees ignore an extra step driving to the basket and don't call traveling, the consequence may be an extra basket that shouldn't have counted. But, if American stewards continue to ignore or even celebrate Ortiz' race riding, it could lead to injuries for horses and riders. At a minimum, it puts unnecessary strain on horses fully exerting themselves, and you'd think with all of the outcry about horse safety and welfare, this is something those that could make a difference would care more about.

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