(Trainer John Ortiz / Photo Courtesy of Oaklawn Park)

From the Oaklawn Park Media Team:

Johnny Ortiz has three horses entered for Friday’s opening-day card at Oaklawn, with one carrying the hopes of the trainer’s family.

Unbeaten Miss Ximena is scheduled to make her 2019 debut in the seventh race, a first-level allowance/optional claimer for 3-year-old fillies at 5 ½ furlongs.

Ortiz’s father, Carlos, broke and owns the Kentucky-bred daughter of Flat Out. She is named after Johnny Ortiz’s younger sister, Karla Ximena Ortiz, who has scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease that is characterized by hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Johnny Ortiz said Miss Ximena has helped cover her sister’s medical bills (the filly has earned $24,840) and raise awareness of the incurable disorder, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, affects women more often than men and most commonly occurs between the ages of 30 and 50.

“My dad named her after we realized … everything came to a point where we said that it was about my sister,” Ortiz said. “The filly loves my sister. She would chase my dad out of the stall, but she would let my little sister walk up to her.”

Miss Ximena (pronounced “He-may-na”) won her Nov. 3 career debut at Indiana Grand, then cleared her first allowance condition Dec. 6 at Turfway Park in her last start. Ortiz said his sister, 27, attended the race at Indiana Grand, but her condition kept her from traveling from her Florida home to Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.

“The cold weather makes her hands hurt,” Ortiz said. “It slows her immune system down a lot, so we try to keep her out of the cold weather.”

Johnny Ortiz said Miss Ximena was originally purchased so his father, a retired jockey, could pinhook the filly at an OBS April sale of 2-year-olds. She had sold for $9,500 at the 2017 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.

“I saw her come up to me and just loved everything about her – her style, her attitude – and so I just bought her out of the back ring,” Ortiz said. “She caught my eye just as I was about to walk out.”

Ortiz said his family decided to keep the filly after she was withdrawn from the OBS sale because of an injury. The filly, now named Miss Ximena, quickly bonded with her namesake, Ortiz said.

“I’ve never seen my sister ever take a liking to horses as much as she did with this filly,” Ortiz said. “It helped my sister’s spirit. She felt more able. She had a much better attitude about life.”

A Central Florida graduate, Karla Ortiz is heavily involved in videography and Miss Ximena’s biggest fan, Johnny Ortiz said.

“My dad owns her, but it’s for her,” Ortiz said. “It’s her horse.”

Probable post time for Friday’s seventh race at Oaklawn is 3:24 p.m. (Central).

Making Up For Lost Time

Ezequiel Lara, one of at least two apprentice jockeys scheduled to ride regularly at the 2019 Oaklawn meeting, didn’t have his first mount until he was 21, making him a relatively late bloomer in the industry.

“School was the main reason,” Lara, 22, said Friday morning. “I wanted to drop out and get out of it, but my parents wanted me to finish.”

Lara grew up near Remington Park in Oklahoma City, where his father, Martin, a former rider, works as valet in the jockeys’ room, before graduating from Del City High School in 2015.

Ezequiel Lara said he’s been around horses all his life, but his only riding experience before graduating from high school was “getting on a pony.”

“I had to completely wait until I was done, so I’m late, real late,” Lara said of his riding career. “I left my house right when I graduated. Right when I was 18, I left my house.”

Lara rode his first race Sept. 14, 2017, at Remington Park. He scored his first victory Feb. 13, 2018, at Sam Houston.

“Just a learning process to become a jockey,” Lara said. “It’s just not something you jump into. It’s a learning process.”

Lara said he’s fortunate to have somebody to lean on for advice. His agent is retired jockey Francisco Torres, who rode more than 3,000 winners in his career. Torres began representing Lara last fall.

“I’m learning a lot, especially with Cisco being right there,” Lara said. “We’ll talk after every single race. We’ll talk about something I could have done, something as simple as getting out of the gate good.”

Lara, who has 26 career victories, will begin his first Oaklawn meeting with a 7-pound weight allowance. He is named on two horses Friday – Officer Sid in the second race for trainer Randy Morse and Irish Marvel in the seventh race for trainer Jimmy DiVito.

“Just try new things,” Lara said. “I heard real good things about Oaklawn. Cisco was planning on bringing me out here.”

Other tracks Lara has ridden at include Fair Grounds, Lone Star, Indiana Grand and Laurel. Luis Fuentes, another 7-pound apprentice, is scheduled to ride regularly this year at Oaklawn.

Oaklawn’s leading apprentice jockeys the last two years, Katie Clawson in 2017 and Edgar Morales in 2018, were Eclipse Award finalists for the country’s top apprentice.

Shades of Gray

The best horse in trainer Kellyn Gorder’s barn last year at Oaklawn was Red Ruby, a gray daughter of Tiznow who won the $122,500 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Gorder returns to Hot Springs with another promising gray 3-year-old filly in Cairo Cutie, second to Grandaria in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weights event Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs in her second career start.

“She’s my big hope this year,” Gorder said. “She was a real good second and the winner came back and romped in a really good race at the Fair Grounds. She’s my hope.”

Cairo Cutie, who is by Cairo Prince, breezed three times at Keeneland after her last start. She arrived in Hot Springs earlier this month.

As for Red Ruby, Gorder said she is training at WinStar Farm in Kentucky and the hope is to have her at Oaklawn in about a month.

In addition to Oaklawn’s Martha Washington, Red Ruby recorded blowout victories in the $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (G2) May 18 at Pimlico and $300,000 Delaware Oaks (G3) July 7 at Delaware Park before being shelved for the remainder of the year with a couple of minor physical setbacks, Gorder said.

“I went out and saw her the other day and she looked really good,” Gorder said.

Finish Lines

The track was rated muddy for workouts Saturday morning. … Wilbo, winner of the $125,000 King Cotton Stakes for older sprinters last year at Oaklawn, worked 6 furlongs in 1:15.60 Saturday morning for Chris Hartman, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2015. … Entries for the Jan. 26 program, the second day of the meeting, will be drawn Monday. … The Jan. 26 card is highlighted by the $100,000 American Beauty Stakes for older female sprinters. .. Allen Milligan, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2009, had 998 career North American victories through Friday, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.