‘Alpha’ Dog

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Young Jayden Ortiz, looking the part on a sunny and chilly afternoon in the bluegrass decked out in a gray and black bowler to match his cozy warm sweater, dished out hellos and high fives to anyone willing to raise a hand walking on the horse path Thursday at Keeneland Race Course.

Ortiz had reason to celebrate, even if he wasn’t completely sure what the fuss was all about, after his father and trainer John Ortiz sent out his first graded stakes winner when recent claim Zulu Alpha won the $100,000 Sycamore Stakes going long on the grass.

The elder Ortiz celebrated, too, understandably choked up walking back from the infield trophy presentation with his wife Crystal and a few reporters and Keeneland officials moments after Michael Hui’s 5-year-old Street Cry gelding came up the fence to top favorite Arklow and nine others in the Grade 3 stakes.

“Speechless,” Ortiz said, holding his son under his right arm. “I’m just very thankful. Thank God. Thank Mr. Michael Hui. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about and it couldn’t happen at a better track.”

Ortiz grew up in the Bronx and worked most recently as a assistant to the Keeneland-based Kellyn Gorder before going out on his own in 2016. He won two races in that abbreviated season before racking up 23 wins and purses of $688,013 last year.

The $60,000 winner’s share of the Sycamore helped further pad Ortiz’s season earnings tally well above seven figures; he’s won 30 races and $1,191,968 in purses through Thursday. He’d won stakes with recent claims before – he claimed Baratti for $25,000 in June at Churchill Downs and two months and two starts later won the $50,000 Preston Madden Stakes at Indiana Grand.

Turning claims into graded stakes winners is also nothing new for Ortiz’s owner.

Hui claimed the veteran stakes winner Hogy for $80,000 in August 2017 at Saratoga and went on to win two graded stakes and another stakes with the gelding in 2017 and 2018. He also claimed Taghleeb for $62,500 in July 2016 at Saratoga and won three stakes with that gelding, including the Grade 3 W. L. McKnight Handicap at Gulfstream to go with a runner-up in the Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont in 2017.

Hui and Ortiz claimed Zulu Alpha for $80,000 from Calumet Farm and trainer Neil Howard out of a 9 ½-length victory in an optional claimer going 1 1/16 miles on the turf at Churchill Downs Sept. 14.

“There was no thought on my part,” Ortiz said, again deflecting credit to his owner. “We just let Mr. Michael Hui do his thing and he’s been very successful picking these very expensive claims and turns them around real good. I just followed his instructions, kept the horse happy and it all paid off.”

Ortiz, who rides his horses in the mornings, and Hui originally targeted the Grade 1 $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile during Keeneland’s opening FallStars Weekend for Zulu Alpha. They didn’t get the chance to run the 5-year-old when he landed on the also-eligible list and failed to draw into the field of 14.

The 1 1/2-mile Sycamore wound up as Plan B and considering what Zulu Alpha showed Ortiz in the morning proved a more than suitable backup.

“This is a horse I can’t even get tired in the morning so I thought the mile and a half would be right up his alley,” Ortiz said. “Mr. Michael Hui and I, we had him pointing toward the Shadwell Mile and we were unfortunately not able to draw in because I thought he’d be tough in that race, too. It all worked out either way. Like I said, I can’t get this horse tired. We just needed to put him in the right spot.”

Channing Hill rode Zulu Alpha in his last three starts – two victories and a close second in grass races – and put the gelding in the right spot in the Sycamore.

They tracked behind the slow early pace set by Canadian shipper Final Copy, who was tracked by 2-1 favorite Arklow through splits of :26.54, :52.64 and 1:18.75.

Final Copy and Arkow continued that battle past the mile in 1:44.45 and were still 1-2 at the top of the stretch past 10 furlongs in 2:10.12. Hill avoided traffic down on the inside tipping Zulu Alpha out into the stretch before going back to the inside for the final run to the wire.

Zulu Alpha drew off and finished 2 lengths in front of Arklow at the finish, returning $16.20 in the field of 11. Arklow held second and was 2 ¼ lengths in front of Bigger Picture with Final Copy fourth. Zulu Alpha won in 2:34.21 over the drying out turf labeled good.

“I was happy my horse got a little cover first time down the lane,” Hill said. “Then when he (Zulu Alpha) pressed the pace, it was either am I going to fight him to stay in this bad spot or am I going to put him inside? The way he ran at Churchill last time, obviously he enjoys coming through (along) the fence.

“He ran a really big race. He finished up strong with plenty of horse left. I want to congratulate Johnny. It’s a big day for him to win a graded stakes here at Keeneland. I was happy to do it for him.”