Adventures With Mike Marten

This week, Steve Byk posted on Facebook reminding everyone that on Feb. 11, Michael J. Marten would have turned 61. Mike, or Mick as some called him, died in 2012 after being diagnosed with cancer. That came as a shock considering what a health nut he was, a lifestyle that rubbed off on him living with his longtime companion, owner and breeder Joanne Nor. Many a time I would go with him to Whole Foods, where he would get some kind of herb or natural supplement. Mike may have been 54 when he died, but he looked like he was in his 30s. And, until he became involved with Joanne in 1995, the women would flock to him like bees to honey. She was the best thing to ever happen to him.

Mike was racing’s premier photographer, coming up with the newly formed Figs Form and eventually becoming the photographer for Daily Racing Form. Among his many accomplishments were two Eclipse Awards.

Mike was extremely aggressive and competitive when it came to his photography and often boasted about his work, taking great pride in the extraordinary images he would get. But he was also helpful to other photographers just getting started in racing.

In the beginning I had my run-ins with Mike, as racing photographers and racing writers often do not mix compatibly. But with Mike, if you gave it to him as good as you got, he would back off and make light of it. The more I got to know Mike, the more I liked him, and in due time we became close and formed a terrific relationship, going on many memorable adventures together. I quickly realized that Mike had an unusual knack for always being in the right place at the right time and always being where news broke. He would often annoy reporters conducting a group interview by breaking in and asking the interviewee a series of questions as if he were one of the reporters. But that was the newshound in him. Racing people to Mike were not just figures to photograph. They were sources of information, which he always wanted to absorb. He wanted to get inside of people and that is why his head shots were so revealing.

Mike’s personality wasn’t for everyone, if you didn’t really know him, and one year when he antagonized someone at a major racetrack it started a chain reaction with other heads of communication that resulted in Mike being refused credentials from those tracks, preventing him from covering the Triple Crown and other major stakes. It broke his heart as he tried unsuccessfully to get reinstated and he was never the same. He seemed a broken man, his passion for the racetrack taken away from him. He passed away a few years later.

I have discussed some of our adventures before, and on this occasion I have to begin with the infamous Smarty Jones story that you couldn’t make up. The year 2004 was unlike any other year in racing with Smarty Jones and Philadelphia Park, of all tracks, the center of the racing universe, as reporters and photographers would flock to Philly Park to chronicle Smarty’s amazing Cinderella story. On the Saturdays following the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Philly Park opened its gates in the morning for the public to come and watch Smarty gallop. It truly became the Smarty party, as about 6,000 fans the first Saturday and 10,000 fans the second Saturday showed up, many lined up outside the gates starting at 5 a.m. to get a good spot on the rail.

Mike had connections with other sports, shooting the NFL Houston Texans games for team owner and horse owner Bob McNair. When it was announced before the Belmont Stakes that Smarty Jones’ trainer John Servis would throw out the first pitch at a Philadelphia Phillies game, Mike was able to get credentials for both of us. He picked me up at my house in his rented SUV and we drove to Citizens Bank Park. There I was, standing on the field warming up Servis, who stood by the dugout throwing pitches to me near the first base line. Eventually, the players emerged from the clubhouse and seemed thrilled to meet Servis. Then came the announcement, “Now, ladies and gentleman, please welcome the trainer of the athlete everyone is talking about: winner of the Kentucky Derby, winner of the Preakness and gunning for the first Triple Crown since 1978 – Smarty Jones! Throwing out the first ball is Philly’s own John Servis.”

After leaving the stadium, as we drove to the hotel we had booked that was located on the grounds of Philly Park, we passed through the Society Hill section of Philadelphia and I couldn’t believe how many homes were adorned with Smarty Jones posters and banners complete with flowers, many wishing him good luck in the Belmont Stakes.

The next morning, Smarty was scheduled to van to Belmont Park, and Mike was intent on following the van all the way, shooting Smarty getting on the van, shooting the van leaving the track, and finally shooting Smarty getting off the van at Belmont. I would be the designated driver and Mike would ride shotgun, shooting from the vehicle.

At 9 o’clock, with three TV helicopters disrupting the morning silence, whirling overhead waiting to record Smarty’s departure to Belmont, two motorcycle police officers arrived, ready to escort Smarty on the first leg of his journey. Officer John Gladu removed his helmet, put on a Smarty Jones hat, then took out his camera and began taking pictures of the horse standing in a grassy paddock adjacent to the loading ramp. “Hey, I’m just a fan.” he said.

Soon they were off, with Mike leaning out the window shooting the van leaving the backstretch. People all along neighboring Galloway Road stood in front of their homes with cameras and camcorders photographing and videotaping the van as it went by. Others just gave a double thumbs up, several shouting, “Go get ’em, Smarty.” Two Bensalem police cars blocked traffic on busy Street Road., while an unmarked police car tucked in behind the van. At the tollbooth for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was momentarily shut down to traffic, all the toll takers gathered outside the booths, applauding and cheering for Smarty Jones as he moved through. Shortly after getting on the turnpike, the van passed a billboard that read, “Look out New York, Smarty’s Coming!” People even gathered on a grassy hill behind a turnpike service area just to watch Smarty go by. After leaving Pennsylvania, the van was picked up by New Jersey state troopers, who eventually would turn it over to the New York police for the final leg of the trip.

As we got to the New Jersey Turnpike, Mike had a decision to make. What do we do about the toll booths? The van obviously was going straight through, so do we follow it, signaling that we’re part of the entourage, as we did in Pennsylvania, or do we stop and pay and risk losing contact with the van?

“It’s your rented car, Mike,” I said to him. “I’m just the driver. Just let me know what you want to do.” Mike needed to be at Belmont just before Smarty arrived to set up his shot so he said to just go through the toll booths, which I did.

We did it again leaving the turnpike, and as we got closer to the George Washington Bridge, maneuvering through traffic to stay with the van, we were gloating about how well everything was going. Driving in the left lane, I noticed the SUV slowing down until we were now coasting at about 10 miles an hour, about to come to a stop. What the hell was happening? I looked at the fuel gauge, and lo and behold, it was on empty. I couldn’t believe it. We had run out of gas in the left lane in the middle of who knows where, and I had to get over four lanes of heavy traffic while crawling at about five miles an hour. With people shouting all kinds of obscenities at me and giving me the finger I finally managed to creep off to the shoulder. I had no idea where we were.

“How could you not fill up the tank before we left?” I barked at Mike. “How come you didn’t look at the gauge?” he snapped back. “Hell, it’s not my car,” I said. “I’m just concentrating on driving so you can get your shots. You’re supposed to make sure you have gas in the tank.”

We quickly called a truce and tried to come up with a plan. Fortunately, we were close to an entrance ramp. I was about to call AAA when Mike dashed out of the car and said he was going to look for gas. Shooting Smarty getting off the van was no longer an issue. We had blown that. I told Mike to just let me call AAA, that we’re in the middle of nowhere and he’s just wasting time. I figured we probably were about four miles from the GW Bridge, probably in some residential area on the outskirts of Fort Lee. But Mike insisted on looking for gas, so I sat in the vehicle and waited.

About 15 minutes later, a pickup truck pulled up behind me and out steps Mike. I see the driver get out carrying a can of gas. I couldn’t believe it. As it turned out, he was a construction worker Mike had run into and offered to pay him $100 if he would give us some gas and bring Mike back to our car. He emptied the can in the gas tank and told Mike, “I wouldn’t try making it all the way to Belmont Park. It’ll be enough to get you to a gas station, but I wouldn’t push my luck.”

I was still trying to comprehend Mike shelling out $100 of his own money when we could have gotten gas for free from AAA. After all, we no longer had any reason to rush to Belmont. Smarty was long gone.

But Mike was insistent that he could still get there in time. He got behind the wheel and gunned it, going about 80 miles an hour. He knew the van wasn’t allowed on certain major highways in New York and that it would take it a little longer to get to Belmont. I thought he was nuts, especially risking running out of gas again or even getting a speeding ticket. Mike had one of his associates at Belmont and kept calling him to see if the van had arrived. It hadn’t; so far so good. Mike kept up his daredevil driving. With Belmont now in sight, he was told the van was just pulling into the gate. It would take the driver several minutes to check in and then make his way through the backstretch to Barn 5 where Smarty would reside. That also happened to be Secretariat’s regular barn.

We zipped through the backstretch gate and headed straight to Barn 5, defying every speed bump along the way. We got to the end of the road near the tunnel to the paddock where you could see Barn 5. The van was already there, but Smarty had not yet unloaded. Mike jumped out, grabbed his camera, told me to park the SUV, and dashed to the van, arriving just as Smarty appeared at the head of the ramp. I parked the car. Mike got his shot. We looked at each other and laughed. Piece a cake. That was what Mike Marten was all about.

Then there were our many trips together to various airports, such as driving to the back cargo terminals of JFK to get Galileo and the other Coolmore horses arriving for the 2001 Breeders’ Cup in the aftermath of 9/11. It was at JFK in 1995 that Mike met Joanne, who was there to greet her eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Desert Stormer. I never thought it would ever happen with so many girls coming and going in his life, but Mike had finally found his soul mate.

Mike had become good friends with Paul Holthus who was in charge of Tex Sutton and who always helped Mike, getting him into the airports and keeping him informed of shipping plans. One year, we drove out to the airport in Farmingdale, N.Y. to get War Emblem arriving for the Belmont Stakes. We both stood in the van with the Derby and Preakness winner when Paul walked up the ramp with another horse. “Can you guess who this is?” he said. I had no idea. “It’s Harlan’s Holiday; he’s going to Pletcher.” On the drive back to Belmont I called the office at BloodHorse and gave them the scoop that the Kentucky Derby favorite had been taken away from Kenny McPeek and given to Todd Pletcher.

A perfect example of Mike being in the right place at the right time and always being where the news was came in 2000 when we drove to Baltimore-Washington International Airport from Pimlico to see Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus get off the plane. Paul, as usual, gave Mike the schedule and directions where to go. As we waited outside the cargo terminal, also waiting was Kirk Wineland, the executive administrator of the airport, who normally doesn’t wait for planes to arrive. I was introduced to him and was able to interview him, as he compared waiting for this “DV (Distinguished Vistor)” to waiting for Vice President Al Gore four months earlier.

“I came to meet the vice president,” he said, “but this is a distinguished visitor as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t miss this for the world, even if I can’t pronounce his name. I exercised executive privilege on this one. I decided this required my presence.” Another exclusive anecdote thanks to Mike Marten.

We then followed the van with its police escort back to Pimlico. The arrangement was that the van would pull into an open area near the barn, which was on the backside and not on the frontside in the customary Preakness barn. Trainer Neil Drysdale wanted him away from all the hoopla. With the van going to the designated area, the photographers could get him coming off.

As we drove through the stable gate, Drysdale, who was also following the van, jumped out of his car and hopped onto the running board of the van and told the driver to go directly to the barn instead of the designated area. This caught the photographers by surprise when they saw the van stop right outside the barn and they all came frantically running over. Mike, knowing this information ahead of time, headed to the opposite side of the barn entrance. The other photographers barely made it in time, and while they were getting only shots of the top of Fusaichi Pegasus’ head only, Mike was stationed where he was able to look through the barn and get the only clear head-on shot of the horse coming off the van. The newshound had struck again.

That reminded me of Mike’s second Eclipse Award-winning photo of Frankie Dettori’s famed dismount after winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf aboard Daylami. All the photographers were in front of the horse waiting to capture the dismount. Mike, however, went to the back of the horse. By doing that, he not only caught Dettori at the very height of his dismount, his arms thrust in the air, he also caught the reaction of the crowd, as well as noted British journalist John McCririck, who was working for NBC, with his arms also thrust in the air in triumph. Mike had nailed the moment in every way.

Mike and I had many a good time in Baltimore, attending the post position draw downtown each year and then going into Little Italy to have dinner at Sabatino’s. And then there was the year of Barbaro.

The Derby winner was stabled at Fair Hill, about an hour’s drive from the track, and Mike and I would drive up there every morning. One morning, alone at the barn, we saw a group of people inspecting Barbaro. Mike made his usual inquiries and learned they were bigwigs from Coolmore. Another scoop perhaps? We never got to find out.

Another morning later in the week when no other photographers or reporters were at Fair Hill, Mike wanted to drive up anyway. Barbaro was scheduled to gallop (he had no works planned between the Derby and Preakness), and when we looked at the schedule posted on the barn we saw a “W” next to Barbaro’s name. I assumed it meant he was only going to walk, but Mike said, “I bet he’s gonna work.” He went in the barn and asked around until he found out the horse indeed was going to work. So Mike set up near the finish line and I got out my stop watch. Sure enough, Barbaro broke off and wound up blowing out, which I was able to clock. When I asked trainer Michael Matz about it afterward, all he did was give a little smirk. Of course, Mike was the only photographer to shoot Barbaro’s work and I had something in that day’s story that no one else had. I was with Mike; what else is new?

So many stories. So many memories. After Mike, life at the racetrack was never quite the same and never quite as much fun.

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