ELMONT, N.Y. -- There was a morning in late March at the Palm Beach Downs training center in South Florida when Jose Ortiz worked Tapwrit in preparation for the Blue Grass Stakes. His enthusiasm level was high.
"This might be my Derby horse," Ortiz said at the time.
Well, things didn't quite click in the Blue Grass or the Kentucky Derby, with Tapwrit finishing fifth and sixth. But Ortiz stuck with Tapwrit, and, more importantly, Tapwrit's connections stuck with him. On Saturday, the loyalty on both sides paid off as Ortiz guided Tapwrit to a two-length victory over Irish War Cry in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
The win came one year after Ortiz finished last in the Belmont on long shot Forever d'Oro while his brother Irad won the race on Creator.
Jose Ortiz's first victory in a Triple Crown race is part of what has been a tremendous year-plus for the 23-year-old native of Puerto Rico. In 2016, Ortiz was the leading rider in North America in wins with 351, won his first Saratoga riding title and was a finalist for the Eclipse Award as outstanding rider.
In December, he married former jockey Taylor Rice, and next month the couple is expecting their first child.
This year, Ortiz ranks fifth in wins among North American-based jockeys and third in purse money won.
"It's been a really good year for me," Ortiz said as he hustled back to the jockeys' room to ride the two races after the Belmont Stakes. Naturally, he won the 13th on Do Share.
Tapwrit is trained by Todd Pletcher, who five weeks ago won the Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming and his go-to rider, John Velazquez, who rode Patch to a third-place finish in the Belmont. Pletcher also uses Javier Castellano, who won the Preakness aboard Cloud Computing for trainer Chad Brown. When it became clear that Cloud Computing wasn't going to run in the Belmont Stakes, Pletcher said there were thoughts about trying to procure Castellano for Tapwrit.
"We talked about it, but we felt like Jose fit the horse well; he'd done nothing wrong," Pletcher said. "We felt like he was the man to stay with him."
Pletcher called Ortiz "a superstar on the rise. Everybody can see it. He seems like he keeps getting better and better. His natural style is to put a horse into the race, and that fits our style."
Ortiz first got on Tapwrit during the winter in Florida when he finished second to the then-undefeated McCraken in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis. In March, Ortiz guided Tapwrit to a convincing 4 1/2-length victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.
Then things went awry. Tapwrit finished fifth in the Blue Grass, a result easily dismissed by Ortiz.
"I knew he didn't like the track," Ortiz said.
In the Derby, Tapwrit was slammed out of the starting gate and was 15th under the wire the first time. He finished sixth.
On Saturday, Tapwrit worked out the trip he and Pletcher wanted. Ortiz had Tapwrit up close in the second flight, inside of Gormley and right behind Irish War Cry and Meantime.
At the top of the stretch, Ortiz moved Tapwrit into second place, and with five cracks of his left-handed whip and two more with his right hand, Tapwrit rallied past Irish War Cry at the 16th pole for the victory.
"By the quarter pole, when Rajiv [Maragh, Irish War Cry's jockey] went on, I was right on top of him -- that's when I think I beat him," Ortiz said. "I knew I had him when I passed the eighth pole. I hit my horse left-handed, and he really laid down, and he started running."
And, much like Ortiz on a seemingly regular basis, didn't stop until he got to the winner's circle.