There are times when you just can’t help root for a horse, a trainer, or an owner. When you look at trainer Carlos Martin about to embark on the Breeders’ Cup trail with the brilliant mare Come Dancing, there are a number of thoughts that run through your head, at least if you have any sense of history and are impressed with hard work and an astute knowledge of horses, racing, and breeding.
I have met the 50-year-old Martin only once. It was at Belmont Park at the barn of his father Jose. He was 12 years old. He was with the horse my wife and I had come to see, Noble Nashua, who had just knocked off heavy hitters Pleasant Colony and Temperence Hill in the grade 1 Marlboro Cup. The young Martin was 12 going on 24 if you went by his insightful analysis of racing and his uncanny expertise on pedigrees.
You knew then he was destined to become a trainer, following in the footsteps of his successful father and Hall of Fame grandfather, Frank “Pancho” Martin.
Well, he did become a trainer, taking out his license at age 19, and for the next three decades he braved the harsh winters of New York rather than bask in the Florida sunshine like many of his fellow trainers. His roots were in New York, and he was a New Yorker through and through, even if it meant coming out to the barn every morning in snow and sub-freezing temperatures.
Simply put, he loved it. Horses were in his blood, and even though he never had the stock to elevate himself into the elite realm of his father and especially his grandfather, he persevered and sent out his share of winners, while doing what he was born to do.
If pedigree is an important aspect of a horse’s career, you can certainly say the same about people, especially in the world of Thoroughbred racing. Many a night, young Carlos would sit with his grandfather listening to stories about the track and his many top-class horses.
Although he could be gruff on the outside at the track, Frank Martin was done a great disservice with the way he was portrayed in the movie Secretariat. Yes, he boasted about the talents of Sham, but never at the expense of Secretariat or Penny Tweedy. He loved Sham, a drop-dead gorgeous colt with a terrific disposition, who, like Alydar, simply came along in the wrong year. And when you get emotionally attached to a horse you are convinced is a superstar it is frustrating to accept the fact there is one better. Martin just refused to stop believing in Sham.
But if there was one thing Carlos learned from his grandfather it was how to get the best out of a horse and turn good-to-mediocre horses into major stakes winners.
Training for successful building contractor Sigmund Sommer, Frank Martin took a Darby Dan castoff, Prince Dantan, and won the Santa Anita Handicap and San Antonio Stakes (both grade 1) with him. He took Never Bow, who had been trained by the great Allen Jerkens and put up for sale by Jack Dreyfus for tax reasons, and won the Brooklyn Handicap with him. He took an unheralded German-bred horse named Hitchcock and won the Suburban Handicap and two Gallant Fox Handicaps with him. He took a colt by the unknown Australian-bred sire Sky High II named Autobiography and defeated champions Key to the Mint and Riva Ridge by 15 lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
And of course, he took the 2-year-old Sham, who Sommer purchased at the Claiborne Farm dispersal for $200,000, and won the Santa Anita Derby with him, finished ahead of Secretariat in the Wood Memorial, and was second to Big Red in the Kentucky Derby, in which he ran the second fastest Derby in history in defeat despite losing two teeth at the start of the race, and the Preakness Stakes.
Finally, he captured three consecutive runnings of the 2 1/4-mile Display Handicap with Paraje, who won the marathon event at ages 5, 6, and 7, breaking the track record at age 6 and shattering it at age 7.
Discovering talent is in Carlos’ blood, and he showed it at a young age when he convinced his father to purchase a Mack Miller/Rokeby Stable 6-year-old castoff named Key Contender, who was seemingly washed up, for Carl Lizza’s Flying Zee Stable. The following year, at age 7, Key Contender won the Suburban Handicap and finished second in the Brooklyn and Aqueduct Handicaps.
Jose, of course, is best known as the trainer of the great sprinter and champion Groovy, winner of 12 stakes, as well as 3-year-old filly champion Wayward Lass, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks and Mother Goose Stakes and four other stakes, and 2-year-old filly champion Lakeville Miss, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks at 3 and the Frizette, Matron, Selima, and Astarita Stakes at 2. Noble Nashua, who like Wayward Lass, was owned by Lizza’a Flying Zee Stable, had the distinction of winning grade 1 stakes on both coasts at 3, capturing the Marlboro Cup and Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. The son of Nashua also won the Dwyer, Jerome Handicap, and Whirlaway Stakes. In the Jerome, he set a new track record at Belmont, covering the mile in 1:33 1/5.
Jose died of lung cancer in 2006 at age 63, with Carlos taking over the training of a number of Flying Zee Stable horses. When Lizza died in 2011, it pretty much depleted Carlos’ stable.
Frank outlived his son by six years, passing away in 2012 at age 86. Following Sigmund Sommer’s death in 1979 at age 62, Frank, unable to get high-powered owners, never enjoyed the success he had with his longtime owner.
Carlos himself had the distinction of winning the grade 1 Top Flight Handicap at age 21 with Buy the Firm, who also captured three other graded stakes and placed in two more grade 1 events.
It is now nearly three decades later and years of brutal winters in New York, and Carlos finally has a horse that is ready to put him in the national spotlight, a place in which he was born to bask. Her name is Come Dancing, a 5-year-old mare by Malibu Moon, who has earned nearly $800,000 this year alone, winning four of her last five stakes, including the grade 1, seven-furlong Ballerina Stakes in a sprightly 1:21 2/5, the grade 2 Gallant Bloom Handicap and Ruffian Stakes, and the grade 3 Distaff Handicap. Her only defeat during that time was a second in the grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes to Midnight Bisou, the best filly in the country.
And in true throwback fashion, Come Dancing is a homebred, owned and bred by Marc Holliday’s Blue Devil Racing Stable. She actually was withdrawn from the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale and eventually turned over to Martin, who saddled her to victories in her first two career starts.
This is a tough year to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, with several brilliant fillies heading to Santa Anita. But no matter how you handicap the race, it is difficult not to root for Martin, as there is no trainer more deserving of this moment.
You can bet his father and grandfather will be looking down with great pride. Frank won the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 1984 with Harbor View Farm’s Outstandingly, albeit by disqualification, in what was pretty much his last hurrah.
Always a fierce competitor, Frank was remembered by Allen Jerkens, who was quoted in Daily Racing Form, “I always thought no matter what I needed he would give it to me if I had to have it. That’s the way he was, but he was a real competitor, too.”
And so is his grandson. It is finally time, after so many years, for another Martin to gain the national recognition of his father and grandfather. He’s only been rehearsing for it for nearly five decades.