LQHBA Insider - By Martha Claussen May  17, 2024


This is a very interesting year for Quarter Horse riders at Delta Downs. The jockey colony is brimming with talent with a three-decade difference between several of the established veterans and the new young guns hoping to earn the title. With just a month to go before the meet wraps on July 9, it's almost impossible to guess who will emerge as top jockey, but it will be a competitive battle for sure!

Veterans Set the Bar

John Hamilton will celebrate his 52nd birthday on June 9. He is going into his 33rd year of piloting these powerful runners, and fortunately for all, has no plans of retiring!

He credits the state's lucrative Quarter Horse program offering 148 days of racing at the four tracks. And ride he does; for the past two years, he has been the nation's leading Quarter Horse rider by wins, with 161 trips to the winner's circle in 2014 and 151 wins last year.

Hamilton was honored as 2015 LQHBA Champion Jockey, and underwent shoulder surgery at the end of the year. He missed the first four months of the year as he was recovering, and is rounding into form.

"I'm not going to lie; it was way tougher than I expected," said Hamilton of the arduous rehabilitation required following the surgery."When I first came back to ride, I didn't feel pain, but it took me a while to regain my coordination."

Gilbert Ortiz is 53 and is a true legend in the Delta jocks room. He won his 3,000th race on Friday, November 27, 2015, joining an elite group of just seven Quarter Horse jockeys who have 3,000 wins. Recently retired G.R. Carter holds the record for all-time wins with 3,803. Still one of the first riders out for morning works, Ortiz keeps a watchful eye on the younger riders.

"Competition at Delta is tough this year," admitted Ortiz. "We've got a lot of young boys who can ride, and some we have to remind to stay in their lane."

Joe Badilla, Jr. is another rider with a nationally recognized reputation. Now 42, he piloted A Delightful Dasher to victory in the 1999 All American Futurity (G1) and made a successful return to the saddle in 2014. He rides for the powerful Michael Taylor barn and is well-respected for his prowess in the saddle.

Veteran rider Donald Watson continues to ride well and stay in the top five. He has formed a solid union with LQHBA champion trainer Kenneth Roberts, Sr. and is proud to see his son, Donald, begin his career as a Quarter Horse trainer.

Thirty-Somethings in the Hunt

David Alvarez had a memorable 2015, winning three of the four riding titles in Louisiana. His title quest began at Louisiana Downs when he finished in a tie with Raul Ramirez, Jr. in March. He topped the standings at Fair Grounds and came from behind to tie John Hamilton at Evangeline.

Alvarez, 37, was born in Veracruz, Mexico, and is currently one of the top riders this meet at Delta.

Alfonso Lujan was born in Pecos, Texas and made his riding debut when he was 19. The first few years were lean, to say the least, but Lujan was never impatient in honing his craft. Earlier this year at Louisiana Downs, the 38-year-old reached a major milestone, winning his 2,000th career race.

Cousins J.R. Ramirez and Raul Ramirez, Jr. are two other jockeys that have top credentials. J.R. returned from a three-year break from the saddle, and has already won two stakes, including a victory aboard Dragon N Panther in the $281,007 Laddie Futurity (RG2) for his brother, Saul Ramirez, Jr. Raul tested the waters at Remington Park, but is back in Louisiana. And why not? He has plenty of success at Delta and won back to back editions of the $1 million LQHBA Breeders Futurity at Evangeline Downs in 2014 and 2015.

Young Guns

Damian Martinez is one of the youngest riders at Delta Downs The 22-year-old was born in Coahuila, Mexico and began riding professionally in 2012. It was a rocky beginning as a broken leg in a training accident kept him off mounts for six months. Martinez recalls that after one trainer fired him, he thought about quitting. However Texas horseman Brian Stroud saw his potential and the two embarked on a prolific association with Martinez guiding 2014 AQHA world champion JRC Callas First to seven stakes wins. The young rider made his move to Louisiana this year and it proved to be a solid move as he is just four wins behind current leader David Alvarez.

"As soon as I walked into the room, I was treated well," said Martinez. "It's great how everyone gets along!"

Luis Guerrero is another up and coming young rider. He finished third in the jockey standings earlier this year at Hialeah Park and has picked up mounts from a number of Louisiana horsemen. Top 870-yard rider Donell Blake and Eddi Martinez and Antonio Alberto, who finished first and second, respectively at Louisiana Downs, are other young riders to watch.

This is the second year that Matt Crawford has served as racing secretary at Delta Downs. He has high regard for the 2016 jockey colony at Delta Downs.

"It's a lot deeper this year," acknowledges Crawford. "There is a very good mix of the old timers and some young guys with talent. The number of race days and full fields have created good opportunities for our riders."

Louisiana Riders Top Year End Rankings

Louisiana-based riders continue to be very prominent in national standings. At the end of 2015, the top three-ranked jockeys by wins were John Hamilton (151); David Alvarez (137) and Raul Ramirez, Jr. (127).

Currently, Alvarez, Raul Ramirez, Jr. and Damian Martinez are ranked eighth, ninth and tenth in the AQHA National rider standings.

"No doubt that this is one of the deepest and most talented group of riders we have ever had," said Hamilton. "We welcomed some boys from other states this year and are very happy to have J.R. back. We're competitive, but with the lucrative racing program in Louisiana, many of us can make a nice living and never have to leave the state."

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Please consider making a donation to a very worthy organization that assists injured riders. The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) is a 501(c)(3) public charity that provides financial assistance to some 60 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries. Since its founding in 2006, the fund has disbursed over $7 million to permanently disabled jockeys, most of whom have sustained paralysis or brain injuries. Tax-deductible donations can be made at pdjf.org.

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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.