Friday, January 6, 2012

Willie Martinez, Jockey

Today’s blogger is jockey Willie Martinez, who has been a familiar face to area fans since setting a Tampa Bay Downs record with 123 victories during the 1991-92 season (the mark stood for 15 years). On Aug. 12 at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., the 40-year-old rider earned career victory No. 3,000 aboard Squeaky Ceci, then delivered one of the best sports quotes of this or any year: “I won my 2,000th in the year 2000 and I was hoping and praying I could win my 3,000th before the year 3000!” Martinez has won a record nine jockey titles at Turfway in Kentucky, and he once rode seven winners at Ellis Park in a single day. He captured the 1997 Keeneland title against the likes of Jerry Bailey and Pat Day. Yet Martinez knows all too well the dangers and unpredictability of his profession. Two weeks after his milestone triumph, he broke his collarbone and four ribs and suffered a punctured lung in a spill at Presque Isle.

I turned 40 in March, but to me that is just a number. I enjoy going to LA Fitness and working out. I try to focus on my cardio more than anything. I don’t care very much about the looks, I just like to stay fit. I do some running and play basketball, but my favorite things are the punching bags, the speed bag and the heavy bag.
I used to do a little bit of boxing training in Puerto Rico when I was younger. I liked the exercises and the programs, and I’m a big fan of kickboxing and boxing. I might try to see if Manny Pacquiao will take a fight with me. He can send me into retirement.
My girlfriend Genevieve and I have been together three and a half years. We are not engaged yet, but we are working toward that. She is the daughter of a jockey, Omar Londono, and she is an exercise rider for Joan Scott Racing Stable and also ponies in the afternoons.
This business can get you really stressed out, but I tell Genevieve when you think you’re having a bad day, it is really just a bad moment. You have the rest of the day to patch it up. We both know when we leave the house there is never a guarantee of us coming back in one piece. So we say our prayers and plan to have a good day and enjoy what is ahead of us. There is always tomorrow.
Everybody deals with things differently, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know how to conduct myself as a professional. Genevieve relates to most of that. I greatly admire how she handles herself. She is known as a good worker and puts a lot of time and passion into what she does.
In 2010, I came pretty close to achieving what every jockey dreams of: winning the Kentucky Derby. It was my fourth Derby and I was riding Noble’s Promise for trainer Ken McPeek. I knew in my heart Noble’s Promise was more of a miler and the mile-and-a-quarter was probably a bit too much to ask, but I had won the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity on him as a 2-year-old and we finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so he was deserving of a shot.
Around the middle of the backside, I started thinking this might be possible. He was in the race without being asked. I knew the buttons I needed to push. I was very comfortable where I was. Then, at the three-eighths pole, I was getting excited, and all I could do in my head was try to block out the noise from the crowd, because I knew as soon as we turned for home the crowd can get the best or the worst out of you in a race like that.
Turning for home, I knew this was my best shot out of all my Derby mounts. Then, just as I was switching my goggles – it was very muddy that day – Calvin Borel (aboard Super Saver) came sneaking up the fence. Before I knew it, he was already there and on his way. Noble’s Promise finished fifth, but it was a great effort on his part.
Mike Moran, who was once a leading rider here, is my agent this year. He has me and Pablo Morales, and the three of us get along fine. I’m a fan of Pablo. He’s 23 and not even close to his prime, but he has such a bright future ahead of him. I try to stay on his butt if I see something that I know he can fix. He is his own man and his own rider, and I hope he finds his own path to success.
The big thing I try to impress upon Pablo is to present himself the right way with people and to communicate with them, because jockeys have to connect with the person who is going to pay your bills.
That being said, the No. 1 thing I tell any young rider is to never forget that our sport is all about the horse. They are the biggest stars. Our names are on the programs and our faces are on TV, but if it wasn’t for the horses, we wouldn’t leave the paddock. As a rider, you have to be a good passenger and that horse has to be a good pilot.
My main goal when I was a young rider was buying my mom a house and bringing my sister and my brother and my niece here from Puerto Rico, and I did all that. Everything that came after that was just a plus. My sister lives in Kentucky now and is a general manager at a bank, and my brother is in music and dancing and entertainment. He’s been a backup dancer for the Black Eyed Peas and travels the world doing what he loves.
My mom is my biggest inspiration and motivation. She raised three kids as a single parent working two jobs. We never had a whole lot, but we always had enough to get by, and she made sure there was food for us and that we had clean clothes and brand new shoes.
My mom is 5-feet-3 and weighs 105 pounds, about my size. It is hard to believe, when you look at her, that she was an undercover narcotics agent in Puerto Rico and Policewoman of the Year two years in a row. To be able to do all that, to me, was amazing. She is an incredible human being. I built her a home 20 years ago before I left to go ride in Kentucky and she lives in the area.
My parents split up when I was 11. My father had his demons, but I like to look at the best of everyone. When he was 13, he lost both his parents and had to provide for all the others. He started laying bricks and tile and became a builder. You think you have it rough, try to support your family when you are 13. He was a handyman and later became a scuba diving instructor.
He was also my biggest fan and encouraged me to become a jockey. Just because he wasn’t a good husband doesn’t mean he isn’t a good dad and a great man.
The racetrack is a very supportive environment, and I have been very fortunate to have met many wonderful people who helped me along. At Finger Lakes in New York when I was just getting started, I became friends with a groom who would tack me up and help me sneak onto the training track at 4:30 a.m. One day, though, the horse I was riding got loose and it turned into a big mess. The outriders were on their way to open up the training track and all they could see was a loose horse and me walking out of there, all dirty. They kicked me out of the track.
I was young, and I said ‘OK, I never wanted to be a jockey, anyway.’ But soon after, I met a wonderful person, a jockey named Jose Rivera II, who was pretty much my savior. He is the one who put the blueprint in front of me, who told me ‘I can tell that you are going to be good.’ He made me believe in myself , and he helped me find a farm where I could break babies and get more involved with horses. That was the understanding I needed to get with it, and within six months I was riding races.
(Tampa Bay Downs steward) Charlie Miranda is another big influence. He is my mentor and the dad I never had at the track. Jose has been my big brother.
There are a handful of people who claim to have put me on my very first winner. Officially, though, I broke my maiden on a filly named La Glace for trainer Bill Noriega. But before that, I actually won two races here at Tampa Bay Downs and got disqualified twice. The second time, I looked at Charlie Miranda like ‘If you want to take my number down again, fine, but still pay me, because I’m broke!’
When I finally did it, Richard Grunder, the track announcer, said ‘And this one is going to count for Martinez’ because I led at every pole.
I was in the hospital for five or six days after I went down at Presque Isle last summer. They put a tube in my lung to drain it and make sure it wasn’t leaking. For a week or so, it was rough going, but after that I had a quick recovery and within 26 days, I was back riding. Mary Bennett, Gerald Bennett’s wife, helped me recover. I would spend 40 minutes at the barn every morning using the infrared laser machine they have for the horses, and within a week I could feel a big difference in how quick I was healing.
That very first spill a jockey takes separates you from being a little boy to a man, right off the bat. When you wake up in an ambulance and your collarbone is over here and there is blood all over, you can’t describe it. It’s like being a boxer – no matter what way you look at it, you’re going to hit that ground sooner or later.
After it happens a few times, you start thinking, is this what I really want to do? Then you realize this is what comes with it. This is what I signed up for.
I’ve ridden with the best and I have accomplished things that were beyond my imagination before I started. Just to ride in four Kentucky Derbies and to be able to go and ride in the Dubai World Cup (second in 2006, aboard Brass Hat). … I have won quite a few stakes, and in those kind of races I always find a way to shine somehow. God has blessed me in a lot of ways.


  1. A great story of dedication and the will to be successful in something you love. You go Martinez.

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  3. Willie, keep up the good work! As a Puertorican, I feel proud of your achievments in horse racing. Hope to keep seeing you in the winner's circle.

    Carlos H. Adrovet
    Puerto Rico

  4. Its great to see someone who loves the sport and isnt
    just about the money ''
    Shows you have CLASS
    YOU are a good man''

  5. Beautiful house.. I like it