LQHBA Insider - By Martha Claussen July  25, 2024


As 2015 flew into its final stages, veteran Quarter Horse jockey, Gilbert Ortiz, was nearing an iconic milestone of 3,000 career wins. For several months, the countdown was on with the momentum building over the last month at Evangeline Downs.

"I felt the support, for sure, but no pressure," said Ortiz, earlier in the week. "Since I began my career, I never thought about numbers. It's always been just one win at a time."

He held sway at 2,999 for several days of racing, but finally, won his 3,000th race on Friday, November 27. The victory was aboard Raul Penaloza Canada's Baby Separatista in the third race on the card, a 400-yard trial for the Evangeline Downs Futurity. With that under his belt, Ortiz joined an elite group of just six other Quarter Horse jockeys who have 3,000 wins: G.R. Carter, Alvin Brossette, Danny Cardoza, Eddie Garcia and John Creager.

Born in Pleasanton, Texas, Ortiz, 52, Ortiz was inspired to take up his profession from his father, Alfredo, a horseman who rode in Laredo and Goliad. When weight became an issue for him, his dad, known as "Freddie", began working for the Texas Highway Department.

But for his son, there was no other path to pursue. Ortiz began his career in 1978 in Texas. The early years were challenging and he did not win a stakes race until 1991. However that decade was very successful for Ortiz with opportunities to ride some of the top-ranked Quarter Horses in the country. He piloted legendary runners including AQHA world champion, Tailor Fit, Kool Kue Baby, Vals Fortune and War Colors. Ortiz surpassed the one million mark in earnings for the first time in 1997 and eclipsed the two million mark five times in his career.

Strong Associations with Many Horsemen

Ortiz has ridden over 20,000 races and credits many horsemen for having faith in him. Much of his early success was with the late Steve VanBebber.

"I was riding at Trinity Meadows, and Steve told me to meet him at Sam Houston Race Park," stated Ortiz. "Steve supported me 100% and one of my biggest seasons was in 1997 in Houston when I won 81 races."

Following Steve's death, Ortiz remained loyal to VanBebber Racing, and Janet VanBebber summed up the qualities that both she and Steve admired.

"My late husband Steve adored Gilbert," said VanBebber. "He enjoyed having him on the team, and considered him family. In the 15 years since Steve's passing, I have been blessed to enjoy the same bond with Gilbert. I am so proud of him for this accomplishment. An achievement of this nature is rare, and comes as a result of a lifelong dedication to his craft."

VanBebber cites the unsurpassed work ethic of Ortiz as one of his strongest attributes.

"While VanBebber Racing Stables has always been associated with hard working riders, there is none in the jockey colony that out works Gilbert Ortiz," she added. "Every single day, he is on the track when the outrider first opens the gates, and he stays until the work is complete. When you are entrusted with a large stable, having a team member with this work ethic is paramount."

Ortiz has ridden for many horsemen in Texas and Louisiana. Duane Hartsell, Salvador Flores, Rodolfo Sanchez, John Stinebaugh, Orlando Orozco, Edwin Ladner and Kenny Roberts are among the trainers who have given him a leg up.

Win number 3,002 was charted on Saturday, November 28 when Ortiz piloted TM Ranch's Heza Louisiana Dash to victory in the $267,171 LQHBA Breeders Derby. The son of Heza Fast Dash was the fastest in the three trials run on November 11 and clinched the championship in blazing fashion. Roberts, one of Texas' top trainers and now prominent in Louisiana, was one of many horsemen rooting for Ortiz to win his 3,000th career race.

"Gilbert is a hard-working man with a ton of talent," said Roberts. "He has always been one of the best in telling you a lot of useful information about the horses he rides."

Both Heath and Michael Taylor have high regard for Ortiz.

"Gilbert and I have been friends for many years," said trainer Michael Taylor. "He's been more than a friend; he's been part of our family. Gilbert's done it the hard way with many ups and downs, but his heart is always in the right place. Of his 3,000 wins, 817 have been for Taylor Racing and we thank him from the bottom of our hearts."

The Injuries

Like so many of his fellow riders, Ortiz has dealt with significant injuries throughout his career. In 1998, Ortiz broke his leg in a starting gate accident in Houston and underwent surgery where a rod and four screws were inserted. His surgeon told him he would not ride again, that there was no way the bone would regenerate. Ortiz sought other recommendations and began using a stimulator for twenty minutes a day to increase blood flow to the leg. Furthermore, he read that certain foods were high in calcium, which is essential for bone growth. So he loaded up on broccoli and blueberries. Nine months later, his surgeon was incredulous that he had solid bone in his badly shattered leg!

In 1999, Ortiz was having an even better year and qualified two for the final of the Texas Classic Futurity at Lone Star Park: BK Runner and Gone Kool Man. However, just four days before the final, Ortiz broke his back.

They ran first and second and Ortiz remembers the generosity of his fellow riders.

"Joe Badilla won on BK Runner and gave me 7.5 %, which he did not have to do and Bubba (Brossette) ran second with Gone Kool Man and took care of me," said Ortiz. "All these riders have been really good to me; they have been my brothers and supported me not only in my 3,000 wins, but when I was down with injuries."

Of course, poll the jockey colony and each and every rider will sing the praises of Ortiz.

"Gilbert is a true professional and hard-working guy," said Raul Ramirez, Jr. "I remember when I first was starting out and was too green to switch sticks, and interfered with Gilbert's horse. Instead of yelling at me, he watched the replay and calmly gave me some really good advice. I try to do the same with the young guys because of the way Gilbert treated me when I was just getting started."

Ortiz was honored in 2012 with the Sam Thompson Memorial Jockey Award, which is presented on All American weekend at Ruidoso Downs. The prestigious award is voted by jockeys for rider whose personal character on and off the track reflects positively on Quarter Horse racing.

Family Man Ortiz and his wife, Priscilla, had three children and raised them in Floresville, Texas. Jessica, the oldest, is a registered nurse in San Antonio; Kourtney is a college student and a pastry chef and son, Andrew is in the Air Force, soon to ship off to Alaska for three years.

"He was on the road a lot when we were growing up," recalled Jessica. "We were able to be with him every summer, but even then, he would be up at 5:00 am and head to the track."

Gilbert and Priscilla divorced several years ago, but both remained committed and caring parents to their three children.

"My parents taught us manners and perseverance," said Jessica. "I am honored to have a father who is so hard working and dedicated."

Janet VanBebber has seen the Ortiz kids grow up to be outstanding young adults.

"It's easy to discuss his attributes as a jockey; they are numerous and an important element in the factors that lead to his 3,000 wins," said VanBebber. "But, even more important in my book, are his qualities as a person. Gilbert is a man of faith, and his actions reflect his Christian principles. As a father, his three kids are, and always have been, the most important thing to him. Furthermore, his integrity in all circumstances make him the kind of fellow you know you can count on."

Jessica, Kourtney and Andrew surprised their dad on Saturday night, making the trip with Gilbert's three sisters, Pauline, Angie and Annie.

Big Celebration at Evangeline Downs

Saturday, November 28 was the biggest racing night of the 2015 Quarter Horse meet at Evangeline Downs, with three stakes including the $1,000,000 LQHBA Breeders Futurity. Following the fifth race, Ortiz was asked to come to the winner's circle for what he thought would be a interview and opportunity to give his thoughts on the notable milestone. As fast as a Quarter Horse sprint, the winner's circle filled with the Evangeline jockey colony, horsemen, and his family to honor him for his achievement.

A well organized group of supporters including Rhonda Cox, Dedria Watson, Cynthia Menard, Louisiana Downs Chaplain Jimmy Sistrunk on behalf of the Winner's Circle Church, Evangeline Downs Chaplain Dwight Brown and the Evangeline Downs Church presented Ortiz with an array of gifts. There was a trophy, banner, custom belt buckle and saddle, pens, wristbands and. koozies as well as a commemorative photo collage.

Through it all, Ortiz sported an ear-to-ear grin, relishing each tribute, gift and heartfelt wish bestowed upon him.

He spoke with sincere admiration for the people who have supported him over the decades, his love for his family and his appreciation for everyone who made the occasion so special.

"It was a big surprise," admitted Ortiz. "I really appreciate my kids, sisters, Cynthia, all these wonderful friends of mine supporting me through my career. They have been behind me 100%.

God has been good to me and I appreciate Evangeline Downs for this. I am glad I earned my 3,000th win here."

Following the $1 million LQHBA Breeders Futurity, winning rider Raul Ramirez, Jr., presented Ortiz with a belt buckle commemorating his 3,000th win.

"Gilbert is an inspiration," stated Ramirez. "He has always been a true professional and shown respect to everyone. I gave him the buckle and told him what an honor it has been for me to see him ride and learn from his dedication."

The celebration is over for now, but will always remain a very special memory, not only for Ortiz, but everyone in the winner's circle and fans watching live and on television. Few people in the Quarter Horse industry deserve the accolades and attention more than Gilbert "the Man" Ortiz.

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The LQHBA Insider is a monthly feature written by Martha Claussen for www.lqhba.com. She served as publicity director at Sam Houston Race Park for ten years. She continues to be active in writing, fan education and Quarter Horse racing publicity in Texas, Louisiana and other regions in North America.