On a late December morning, Irad Ortiz Jr., along with his brother and fellow jockey Jose, made a two-hour drive to Payson Park.
There were no races for them in South Florida and Christmas was days away. But the drive, the motivation to improve even after another typical Irad year, was all he needed.
That relentless spirit, as his agent, Steve Rushing, called it, might be the secret to Ortiz’s success.
“I don’t think it’s anything that you can teach someone who’s just a naturally talented rider and has a great work ethic,” said Rushing. “He has a great personality; everyone loves him. Hard worker. He’s just a complete package.”
A year after setting the earnings record, Ortiz did it again in 2023 with $39,192,585, eclipsing the previous mark by more than $2 million.
He led all jockeys in wins (366) for the seventh consecutive year, and also had the most seconds (269), and thirds (248).
The 31-year-old native of Puerto Rico also was the leading rider by earnings for meets at Belmont Park, Saratoga Racecourse, and Santa Anita Park.
On top of those accolades, Ortiz took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) with Elite Power and the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) aboard Goodnight Olive, repeating his 2022 victories on both superstars at the year-end championships.
His biggest win came in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) with Horse of the Year contender White Abbario. He earned his fifth Bill Shoemaker Award as the outstanding rider at the 2023 Breeders’ Cup.
“He’s not looking to take time off,” Rushing said. “He’s not looking at ever going on vacation like most people, most riders. They get toward the end of a great year, and they want to take time off.
“He’s just always wanting to push and get to the next milestone, whatever that may be. And he said last year, he broke the money record, and this year, he wanted to break that, which he did again. He’s never satisfied and he’s always looking to accomplish more.”
Unlike many top jockeys, the four-time Eclipse Award winner sometimes rides the entire card, especially at Saratoga. Ortiz’s 1,560 mounts also led the nation.
Among apprentice jockeys, Axel Concepcion led the way with $5,179,154 in earnings. He started 1,005 times, finishing in the top three an impressive 52 percent. Concepcion was 199-160-159, and he was 14th overall in wins.
The 18-year-old Puerto Rico native was the leading rider at Laurel Park’s spring meet and in November made the move to Kentucky, where he raced at Churchill Downs and Turfway Park.
The move to Kentucky has already been beneficial, as 10 of the 12 biggest purses he has raced for have come in the Bluegrass State.
Concepcion won a $120,000 maiden special weight with Red River Magic at Churchill Downs. He also has a fourth in the Federico Tesio Stakes and a second in the Timonium Distaff Stakes.
It wasn’t a debut season without blemish, as Concepcion was suspended for 30 calendar days after the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission found he was “extremely careless in failing to control and guide his mount, Backwoods Boogie, leaving the starting gate, impeding several horses, and causing the horse Trumpence to fall, which resulted in a fatal injury to Trumpence” in a September race.
On October 6, he was again suspended 30 days for “causing interference that resulted in a horse falling and a rider to be unseated” two days earlier. Both suspensions were later reduced to 21 days.