John Ortiz has been around the racetrack his entire life…literally.
As the son of jockey Carlos Ortiz, John’s life always revolved around the races, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise when John followed in his father’s footsteps and began a career at the racetrack at age 16. After years of riding, hot walking, and working as an assistant for trainers such as Bill Mott, Graham Motion, and Barclay Tagg, John has accomplished a lifelong dream of becoming a professional, licensed Thoroughbred trainer.
At just 31 years old, John is making a name for himself as a up-and-coming trainer to keep an eye on. As a new trainer – along with being a husband and father – the road isn’t easy, but John has already established himself as a passionate, hard-working ambassador of the game. With a keen eye for talent, John is building his stable with a dream of becoming a Champion trainer, and so far he certainly seems to be heading in the right direction.
Let’s learn more about John Ortiz and the challenges and rewards of being a young trainer in this Thoroughbred Insider Q & A…
Growing up in the racing scene, did you always know you wanted to get involved in the industry?
I sure did.
My dad was one of the top riders in his native Colombia. My mom’s side of the family was introduced to the industry through my dad, and now all the boys in my family work on the track. Even my 18 year old brother, Daniel, who is going to school for equine business management and works for JJ Pletcher. Growing up, I was at tracks in the Mid-Atlantic – Delaware , Maryland, New Jersey, and even in New York – where my dad would race. I wanted to be a jockey, just like my dad, but my appetite had different plans.
After I realized I couldn’t be a jockey, I decided that I wanted to be a trainer. After going to school to become an automotive technician, I made my way out of the garage and back to the track, where I learned to ride. Eventually, I took on serious barn roles like being a barn foreman for Bill Mott and Graham Motion. I got my assistant license when I worked for Motion, and worked for other trainers like Barclay Tagg, Gregory Deprima, and Phill Serpe in New York and Florida.
I made Lexington home under Kellyn Gorder for the last 5 years. In his job interview, he asked me if I just wanted to be his assistant. I told him “for now… but I’d like to train on my own one day”, and that’s how I got the job.
My dad said it best, “no matter what you do, you have horses in your blood, and it will always come natural and you’ll be successful in whatever you do.”
What were your early days at the track like?
As far as I can remember, I would run along the rail at Delaware Park as the horses ran down the stretch, trying to beat them to the wire… I won every time.
The first job I had was under one of my role models, Bill Mott. I starting hot walking horses every time I was off from school in the summers and weekends – even through the winter. Eventually, he taught me to groom, and after I finished school he gave me the opportunity to take on more responsibilities around the barn as barn foreman. I slowly made my way on to the back of a horse. I remember my first horse Bill ponyed me on, a filly named Brown Eyed Lass, in the summer of 2000. So, I have been riding for about 17 years on and off. I still like to gallop and breeze my own horses.
When did you realize you wanted to start training racehorses?
After I spent years trying to figure out how to keep my weight down to possibly be a jockey, I realized that I was more interested on fixing horses and training. I knew I would always want to give it a try, but it really wasn’t until I decided to move to Lexington. I really buckled down , made a few life changes, and dedicated all my time and effort to learning everything about training, races, the sales, and making new connections. Kellyn gave me the opportunity to take charge of his strings, travel for him, and even make serious barn decisions. I owe a lot to him.
Who are some of your favorite racehorses?
I like simple horses. Everyone loves the obvious horses – and with good reason. We all like to cheer for the winners; so do I. I’m a fan of horses like Gun Runner, American Pharoah, Zenyatta, etc., but I really, REALLY love cheering on the regular guys. Cigar is always on my favorites list, too, because my dad and I were with Mott while Cigar was on his back to back wins.
Another is General Election, a WinStar horse that came to Kellyn. I spent so much time with that horse, and it took lots of work to get him to win two G2 Stakes for the barn. He is retired now. I just love a horse like Rapid Redux – an award winning, record breaking war horse! I’d love to make this kind of claim, or have a Cigar in the barn one day.
As a trainer, what are some of the main things you look for in a horse when looking at prospects for your stable?
Well, I do a lot of claiming, and thats how I’ve grown in numbers. When I’m out picking horses, I look at the form first. Once I find what might be a diamond in the rough, I watch it walk to the paddock, and I look for little details…. the way they walk, body conformation, equipment, things like that.
At the sales, looking at young horses, I look for a horse with an athletic body, strong shoulders, strong hind end, strong walk, and a horse that carries its head right. The catalog page helps, but I want to find that “under the radar horse” to make history with. You know, like a Bourbon Courage kind of horse.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite parts of your job every day?
My favorite part of my job? Winning.
But that’s mainly because I love seeing everyone’s faces. Seeing my crew and owners get excited and hugging and high fiving after we win a race, I love it. They all support and help me out so much to have a horse ready to win. It’s not just a win for me. It’s a win for all the hard work they put in.
So I guess you’d say my team is my favorite part of my job.
My least favorite part….waking up. Long mornings start with waking up at 4:30am and then a long drive between Lexington and Louisville and to the barn. Driving is not always pleasant either. I don’t want to complain, but sometimes it’s hard not to. But… you just have to do it.
So, tell us a little bit about your stable….
My stable starts with my help. My barn is a team; they make it way easier to do my job. From my rider Mayco Diego, to all my hotwalkers, and most importantly my owners. Everyone has an important roll. Now with the numbers picking up, I have hired an assistant, Bryan Houghton, who will help me as we grow.
I have 23 horses currently stabled at Churchill’s Trackside training center, with a few more on the claim list and some babies in Florida.
I do a lot of claiming, and I love playing the game. I have had a lot of help in understanding the claiming game from great supporters and friends, Danny Caldwell and Brent Gasaway. I have 8 different owners since I started my public barn, all which we have won with.
I have 5 two year old fillies, all of which I’m really excited about. Keep an eye on them. I am very confident in my young stock, particularly our filly Sully’s Dream. She has matured and improved so much since she arrived back to our barn.
I have one major goal, and that’s to be a champion trainer. I didn’t start training because I could or just to make money. It’s a challenge to get to the top… and I will reach the top one day. I know I will. I have so much support from friends, family, and clients, and I can’t let them down. I have to set day-to-day goals because this is a career where not one day is the same. So I take it one day at a time, one meet at a time. To become a champion I have to reach smaller goals first, like just winning at a high percentage, winning my first stakes race, and eventually winning a trainer’s title.
What have been some of your most memorable moments at the track so far?
Most memorable moments? There are so many, being that it’s pretty much a first for everything I do.
My first career win at Turfway Park last December was a great moment. I remember I had been driving and working all day, my son was just a few weeks old, and my mom was in town. The last thing I wanted to do was spend the night driving to the race when I could have been at home with my family. We watched on the phone as Red Charm crossed the wire first, and we were all so excited. I wasn’t there to take my first win picture, but even better than that was the fact that I was surrounded by my family – my wife, my mom, and my son.
Another memorable moment was closing day at Oaklawn Park. As I watched a horse that I had claimed win on a big race day, I realized how amazing my first meet had gone. I felt blessed.
Lastly, getting my first win at Keeneland this spring with a horse I claimed. It was a special moment because it was at home for me and for the owner that got me started, Tommy Julian, and my great friend, Channing Hill.
Who are some of the people you have looked up to over the years?
I look up to a few people in my life. Most importantly is my dad, Carlos Ortiz.
My dad is invincible. I have never met someone who can never get beat down. No matter what life throws at him, he crushes it. He’s a great horseman. When you think he is finally ready to retire on a beach in Florida, he starts a business breaking yearlings… and yes, he still rides. I have to out do him one of these days. Like him, I don’t ever want to have anything slow me down, but most importantly, I can only wish to be as good of a father as he has been.
I really look up to Danny Cladwell, who has been a dear friend and because of him I was able to take off on my own last November. He introduced me to my first owner, Tommy Julian. He has taught me how to pick out those claimers no one else sees and how to do well with them.
Brent Gasaway has been a friend and supporter of mine from day one, also. We have won several races together, and we are still looking for more horses. We need people like him in our barn, who just trust you and support you 100 percent. You can only wish to have a guy like him in your barn.
I admire several trainers in the industry. I just love watching everyone do different things to get the same result. I look up to Steve Asmussen for all of his accomplishments. As a trainer that I just see working 24/7, I love the way he trains and operates his barn. Kellyn Gorder is the horseman I really admire, and I say that from the bottom of my heart. He has taught me so much in the last five years.
Do you have any favorite racetracks?
I’ve had the privilege to travel to almost every major racetrack in the United States. I have been to each Triple Crown race – but each in a different year. I loved Del Mar and Santa Anita, but Keeneland is home for me… and the most beautiful of all, I think. Gulfstream is a fun place with great horse racing during the winters by the beach. I have seen many more tracks, but my favorite track of all is Oaklawn Park. It has so many local fans, and they make it so fun to be there. They have so many different trainers from the East, North, South, and West meet up for the opportunity to win some serious money.
The one track I would love to visit… better yet, I want to race over… is Mayden Race Course.
Have you experienced challenges in being a young, recently licensed trainer?
The biggest challenges I’ve had are getting stalls and getting good help in a growing barn.
The tracks give us new trainers an allotted number of stalls. As the barn grows and horses come in, I have to borrow stalls from nearby trainers. When new horses come in, I often catch myself mucking out a stall or two or cooling out horses while talking to jock agents or owners on the phone.
My advice to anyone trying to get in the industry is to go to school. Get educated in every aspect of the industry. Travel and experience as much as you can before you sit down and decide you want to train. Also, always believe that what you’re doing is the right choice.
What are some of your favorite things to do in your off time?
Off time….? Haha what’s that?!
It’s not an easy thing to balance work and family. I travel away for different meets, and I often drive all day. My wife works on the dark days, and I race on the weekends. I do make sure I take a break to think about how much I’m at the barn and put forth that same effort at home.
On days I’m not racing or meeting up with new owners, I pick up the boys – my 10 month old, Jayden Alexander Ortiz, and my 5 year old, Xavier Alexander Willis, from day care early. I “try” to have dinner cooked before Crystal gets home to cut out extra time for us to just hang out with the kids. I post a lot about my family on social media because when I’m having a long day and I’m scrolling through my phone, I get to see them everywhere. I smile and remember that all I do is all for them. All of it.
When I do have “off time” my wife, I try to make it to church with the kids and then the aquarium in Ohio. Xavier always wants to go there. If not, a nap on the couch with the kids jumping on top of me is just as satisfying.
Lastly, what are some of the most prevalent challenges you see facing racing today, and what do you think racing can do to continue to grow?
I believe there has to be a better way to address incidents where trainers get a positive test through contaminations. There are some things that we, as responsible trainers, just can’t control. It’s hard to know whose hands are “dirty” or how a certain horse can metabolize certain medications. I’ve seen it happen to two really good trainers.
I have noticed that we, the younger generations, have been stepping up in the industry. There are a handful of young trainers out there that are bringing in new forms of training, advertising, and managing. We are more “social” and open to the public. There are new, young owners as well.
I have seen younger crowds coming out to the tracks. I’d like to see tracks do more for them like College Day at Keeneland. Bringing in younger fans and advertising for younger crowds will help the industry grow.
The energy in John Ortiz’s voice as he talks about this sport and the dreams he hopes to fulfill in it is infectious. We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this young man with a mission of becoming a Champion in the world of Thoroughbred racing.
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