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Jockeying For Position: Riders Up, and Down, For 149th Kentucky Derby

Ortiz Jr.’s Star Shines Brightest; Velazquez Makes 25th Start

With 20 horses leaving the gate and 20 jockeys screaming all the way to the finish, the Kentucky Derby is arguably the most difficult race to win. Kentucky Derby predictions also become tougher to make because the most-talented riders face potential pitfalls in the bulky field, rendering skills and past performances useless. Following is a look at some of the exceptional athletes that will ride the equine stars on the First Saturday in May, and who might be in the best position – at least on paper – to be blanketed with roses.

Is Irad’s Derby Drought About to End?

Irad OrtizJr. is the best jockey in North America – and perhaps the world, but that hasn’t translated to success in the Kentucky Derby. Ortiz, the reigning and four-time winning Eclipse Award rider, is 0-for-6 after a fifth-place finish aboard Mo Donegal last year. Ortiz’s time may have come with Forte, the 2-year-old champion who is 2-for-2 at age 3 and expected to be the post-time favorite in the Kentucky Derby odds. Forte is conditioned by Todd Pletcher, the reigning and eight-time winning Eclipse Award trainer who has won the Derby twice.

Jockeying For Position: Riders Up, and Down, For 149th Kentucky Derby
Jose Ortiz up takes second - Al Bello/Getty Images/afp

A horse’s ability is the biggest factor when making Kentucky Derby picks, but the human element also comes into play. With 20 horses entered, it can go sideways quickly — even for the best in the business. “Maybe you go into the Derby with the best chance, but you know what happens in that race,” Ortiz told Horse Racing Nation. “For sure it’s the best chance I’ve had in the past couple years. He’s going in as the favorite, so hopefully we stay sound together.”

Johnny V. Serves As Standard Bearer for Derby Success

Eight jockeys are tied for third with three Kentucky Derby victories apiece, and four are active. But only one will ride in the Run for the Roses: Hall of Famer John Velazquez.

Velazquez has crossed the wire first in four Derbies, but the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit was disqualified in 2021 after failing a post-race drug test. Velazquez is expected to ride Reincarnate this year. Tim Yakteen has taken over the training duties for Reincarnate, who left the Bob Baffert barn in order to be eligible to compete in the Derby. Reincarnate is a likely longshot, but could be enticing when betting online with Velazquez at the controls. This will be the 51-year-old Velazquez’s 25th Derby. He finished second twice.

Victor Espinoza, another three-time winner of the Derby, will sit this one out. Espinoza rode Skinner in his past five races, including a third in the Santa Anita Derby last out. However, the owners decided to make a rider switch to Juan Hernandez when Skinner moved into the Top 20 after Wild on Ice was euthanized on Thursday following a catastrophic injury while training.

We thought a change would maybe shake things up a little bit,” trainer John Shirreffs told DRF. “Maybe Skinner was used to the way Victor was riding him. It might help to have a different rider.”

There Are Others Who Have Won – Officially and Unofficially

There have been four disqualifications in Kentucky Derby history. The first two occurred in 1968 and 1984. The last two came in the past four runnings. Maximum Security crossed the wire first in 2019 but was placed 17th after jockey Luis Saez caused interference in the stretch. Country House, ridden by Flavien Prat, was elevated to first. Mandaloun, with Florent Geroux aboard, was declared the winner in 2021 after Medina Spirit was DQed.

Saez (0-for-9), Prat, and Geroux all have mounts this year. Joel Rosario, who won the 2013 Derby with Orb, will also ride. Saez is on likely second choice Tapit Trice, Prat will guide contender Angel of Empire, Geroux has the mount on outsider Jace’s Road and Rosario rides longshot Disarm.

Saez had a choice between Blue Grass Stakes winner Tapit Trice; Kingsbarns, the wire-to-wire Louisiana Derby winner; and Mage, a troubled second to Forte in the Florida Derby. Saez was so high on Tapit Trice that he made a special trip to ride him to victory in the Tampa Bay Derby in order to help insure he keep the mount on the Pletcher charge.

Oh, Brother! Jose Ortiz Likely to Pick Up Mount on Kingsbarns

Jose Ortiz, Irad’s brother, will ride Kingsbarns on Saturday in a workout. A decision will be made soon after on whether he will ride the other Pletcher Derby entrant. Ortiz won the Eclipse Award in 2017 and owns Preakness and Belmont victories.

Raise Cain, fifth in the Blue Grass, needs a jockey after Javier Castellano decided earlier this week to ride Mage instead. All other riders appear to have mounts in place.

Mike Smith is available. Smith claimed the 2017 Triple Crown with Justify and the 2005 Derby on Giacomo.

Be sure to keep an eye on the Kentucky Derby news before heading to the racebook prior to The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.

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