Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. (right), a native of Puerto Rico, waited anxiously for news on Hurricane Maria

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. (right), a native of Puerto Rico, waited anxiously for news on Hurricane Maria

Skip Dickstein

Hurricane Maria Impacts New York Racing Families

Industry has strong ties to Puerto Rico.

A story by Bob Ehalt courtesy of America's Best Racing

The weather in the New York City area last week was fine. Quite pleasant, actually.

Yet around Belmont Park it was a week filled with tension and concern due to a natural disaster and the tragedy unfolding some 1,600 miles away in Puerto Rico.

As the island absorbed the brunt of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20 and suffered catastrophic damage that could leave portions of the United States territory without electricity for months, it led to a difficult week at Belmont Park. With so many members of the racetrack community having Puerto Rican ancestry, there was palpable tension as people awaited word about the well-being of family and friends in the wake of the killer storm.

Irad Ortiz Jr., one of the nation's top jockeys, was born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, and was one of many at Belmont who nervously awaited a shred of news from the devastated island.

"It was a tense time," said Irad, brother of fellow New York jockey Jose Ortiz. "There are so many people from Puerto Rico here at the racetrack. You tried to get in contact with people there but it wasn't easy. All you could do is wait and pray for good news."

The news for the Ortiz brothers turned out to be good. None of their family members in Puerto Rico were injured. Most of their immediate family currently reside in the United States, and, quite fortunately, his grandmother who lives in Puerto Rico, was in America visiting relatives when the hurricane struck.

"We were lucky my grandmother was here," Irad Ortiz said. "I am so thankful she was not there and was safe here."

The 25-year-old rider watched the awful scenes on television of the hurricane ripping though Puerto Rico, but having lived through some brutal storms while growing up on the island, he said it was impossible to fully comprehend from afar what the residents of Puerto Rico are enduring.

"Puerto Rico was hit so very hard this time. It was the worst hurricane in 100 years. There is water all over the place," said Ortiz, who is currently third in the nation with victories (222). "There are so many people without power and drinking water. You can be here in the United States and think they are going through hard times there, but you really can't imagine what they are going through in Puerto Rico. There are no words for it.  I really hope the American people help us to make things better there as soon as possible."

If there's a sure thing, it's that the help for Puerto Rico that Ortiz mentioned will indeed come, be it from Belmont Park, other racetracks, or various parts of the industry, especially when it comes to assisting horses and horsemen.

On Monday, BloodHorse.com reported that Dr. Scarlette Gotwals, operations manager of Brook Ledge Horse Transportation's Horse America, is arranging a cargo plane that will deliver supplies to Hipodromo Camarero, a racetrack in Canovanas, Puerto Rico. Among those supporting the effort are Kim Heath of Bonnie Heath Farm in Florida and Suzanne Watkins in Lexington, Ky. In addition, according to the BloodHorse story, the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company is planning to ship a container of feed to Puerto Rico and New Bolton Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, intends to send veterinarians and vet tech staff to the U.S. territory.

Beyond all that, expect Americans from all walks of life to again lend a helping hand when it's needed most during a turbulent month when so many different places and people were devastated by nature at its very worst.