When jockey Jose Ortiz recorded the first five-win day of his career at Aqueduct Racetrack March 6—which put the finishing touches on a four-day racing week where he won 11 races—perhaps there was no one prouder than his agent, Jim Riccio Jr.
A team since 2012, Riccio and Ortiz's successes on the New York Racing Association circuit have been plentiful. Under the guidance of the New Jersey-born agent, Ortiz has deftly navigated the waters of the most competitive jockey colony in the country. In doing so, the 22-year-old rider has gone head-to-head with his older brother, Irad Jr., who was NYRA's year-end leading rider in 2014 and 2015.
With just two weeks remaining in Aqueduct's inner-track meet, the younger Ortiz holds the lead in the jockey standings over his brother. If he maintains it, Jose Ortiz will have won his second consecutive inner-track title.
"I'm an Aqueduct guy, and I won't lie to you, it would be very disappointing to me not to win," Riccio, 38, said on a recent morning on the Belmont Park backstretch. "This is important to us. And it's a good colony; it's not a picnic here in the winter."
Riccio received his introduction to racing through his father, James Riccio Sr., who has owned horses since the 1980s.
"As a child, I would come to the races with my dad. With the 25 minutes between races, I was little bored," Riccio said. "But once I got to high-school age, I got the fever. I couldn't miss a race."
One summer while Riccio was on break from his business studies at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey, he took the book of veteran rider Nick Santagata Jr. The experience was so rewarding, Riccio proclaimed to his parents he was ready to ditch school.
"I said, 'This is what I want to do; I'm done with college,' " he recalled. "But my parents said 'No.' Don't tell anybody, but I had the (track) program in my text books at all times."
School books were traded for condition books after graduation, and Riccio turned his attention fully to the racetrack. After working with Alan Garcia, C.C. Lopez, and Julian Pimental, a pivotal point in Riccio's career came several years ago when he handled for a time the riding assignments of Hall of Famer Edgar Prado.
"Best move at the time was made when I got Edgar Prado," Riccio said. "I was still young and he was in the later stages of his career, but obviously one of the most revered and talented jockeys of all times. When I put my name with him, I guess people realized, 'OK, this guy (Riccio) is for real.' Through Edgar, I met a lot of people and made contacts. Edgar taught me a lot."
When Riccio first partnered with Ortiz, the rider who immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico in 2011, still carried his five-pound apprenticeship. The agent acknowledges his job now is different from when he first took on the rider's book. During their partnership, Ortiz has been among the top 10 riders nationally in money won on four occasions.
"At first you have to convince people that Jose is the man they want on their horses," Riccio said. "Now I think many trainers and owners know that, so it's more juggling and trying to get the best possible horse to ride. In all of that, there is keeping people happy and being loyal to the people who have helped us and continue to ride us.
"And sometimes it's not always about getting the best horse in a race, sometimes you just have to ride for certain people. But in the long run, obviously, having good connections pays off."
One of those "good connections" is trainer Linda Rice, who paired Ortiz with her brilliant La Verdad, who closed out her career as the 2015 Eclipse Award-winning champion filly sprinter. Another trainer who thought highly enough of Ortiz to give him back-to-back mounts in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) was Rick Violette Jr., who legged up the rider on Samraat (2014) and Upstart (2015).
It's too soon to know if Ortiz will have a Derby ride this year, but he did pilot the promising Rice-trained colt, Matt King Coal, to an allowance win at Aqueduct March 6. After the impressive performance, Rice indicated that the son of Cool Coal Man is under consideration for the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) April 9.
"The Derby is what everybody dreams of winning," Riccio said. "The build up to the Derby is a lot fun, as is trying to get there through the preps. When Matt King Coal ran the other day, the win had an extra kick to it because of the horse's ability and potential."
Derby dreaming aside, Riccio said his association with Ortiz, whose affability and reputation as a hard-worker does not go unnoticed by horsemen, holds more meaning than just that of a working collaboration.
"I always tell Jose that I hope he can be my last jockey," remarked Riccio, the married father of two young children. "It feels like he is part of my family."