Bobby Zen

At 84-1 odds, Boys and Bullets (Uptowncharlybrown) was lagging in 11th and last place nearing the quarter pole in last Wednesday’s eighth race at Parx when 10-pound apprentice jockey Francisco Martinez patiently started picking off half the field.

By the time Martinez set down his gelding at the eighth pole, Boys and Bullets was gathering momentum, but still five lengths behind the frontrunner.

As the line loomed, the pack tightened. With a hustling hand ride Martinez gunned for an inside split, then deftly readjusted his aim for a better hole between rivals to the outside.

Boys and Bullets burst through to head-bob with the leader in the final strides, and Martinez kept driving hard through the finish. It was only a few jumps later that the rookie rider gave a jubilant fist pump because he knew he had earned his first official winner as a licensed professional.

Or had he? On the gallop-out, doubts crept in. Returning to unsaddle, Martinez became even less sure, because none of the other riders were saying anything one way or the other.

Then he saw his number glowing on the infield tote board. Boys and Bullets had won by a head. After coming close with six seconds and seven thirds from 29 mounts since his Mar. 5 debut, Martinez was a maiden no more.

“My heart screamed inside of me, I was so happy,” Martinez told TDN. “I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I got it done on a long shot-the one that you least expect.’”

You’ve seen the congratulatory rite-of-passage “baptism” that accompanies an apprentice jockey’s first win in North America: A gleeful mob of riders and valets douse the grinning newbie with water, shaving cream, boot polish, toothpaste, shampoo, eggs, and whatever other gooey substances can be found in the jocks’ room or kitchen.

Martinez’s celebratory bath was no different. But his backstory certainly is.

For starters, he’s 30 years old and has only been riding horses for 3 1/2 years despite having spent a childhood in a family of racetrackers on the now-defunct New England circuit. In addition, as a teenager, Martinez drifted away from the sport-and for a brief while, his family. He reconnected with both after figuring out, in his words, “that horses really do bring people together.”

“In Boston, I grew up in the ‘hood,” Martinez said. “I come from poverty, so it feels nice to, like, be someone now in life. And if feels good to know that my parents are really, really happy for me, and my family supports me in everything I do. I thought I was lost at 20 years old.”

‘You’re going to be a jockey…’

Martinez’s father, also named Francisco, has worked for decades in the stable of trainer Mike Aro. When Aro was based primarily at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs, the younger Martinez recalls that he and his two younger brothers were always welcome under the shed row, where they got acquainted with racehorses from infancy.

In the early 2000s, the Martinez boys carried their equine enthusiasm home, where they were fond of watching the nightly televised Suffolk replay show while “riding” the arms of the couch with their dad’s leather belts strapped to the furniture as reins.

Those pretend stretch battles did not exactly thrill their mother, Maria Rodriguez.

“My Mom would be like, ‘What are you guys breaking down the couch for?’” Martinez reminisced. “And I would say, ‘We’re learning. We’re riding.”

Martinez was allowed to do some hotwalking in the summers before he got out of grade school, and he gained a reputation for being able to handle difficult horses, even as a child.

“Especially the crazy ones. I used to get along with them really good,” Martinez said with pride.

He occasionally would be permitted to get up on horseback, but not beyond the shed row.

Martinez vividly recalls one of Aro’s primary jockeys at the time, Michel Lapensee, giving him early encouragement.

“Mike Lapensee once threw his helmet and vest on me and put me up on a horse in Mikey Aro’s barn and said, ‘You’re going to be a jockey when you grow up,’” Martinez recalled.

Decades later, that prediction resonates with poignancy: Lapensee died at age 58 in 2005 after a fall during a race at Suffolk.

But as Martinez grew into his teenage years, his interest in racing became eclipsed by a passion for soccer. He got recruited to play for a statewide team in Massachusetts.

At roughly the same time though, his father decided to follow a job offer to Parx when the Aro outfit relocated to Pennsylvania. This was a few years after Rockingham ceased Thoroughbred racing in 2002 and more than a decade before Suffolk would close in 2019.

“It was just me, my mom, and my two brothers back home,” Martinez said. “Then I broke my three last toes on my right foot, and I just couldn’t get back into soccer shape. Every time I tried to run, I couldn’t run. I’d fall or trip or something because I had no feeling there yet. And I kind of got mad and got away from it. Then I started hanging around the streets a lot. I got distant from everybody. I dropped out of school.”

Martinez has an uncle, Ruben Rodriguez, who had worked for standings-topping New England trainer Charlie Assimakopoulos. But Rodriguez left the backstretch life to take on construction work when that outfit also relocated as the New England circuit dissolved. Seeing that his nephew was in danger of going adrift, Rodriguez got him a job as a construction laborer in Boston. But Martinez didn’t really relish the work and had a nagging feeling something was missing.

His dad phoned one day. “What are you going to do with your life?” he asked his son point-blank.

“Honestly, I was going to call you to come back to the horses,” Martinez told his father. “Because that’s all I’ve known since I was little.”

So Martinez followed his father to Pennsylvania. Eventually, his younger brothers took jobs at Parx as well. Luis, the middle sibling, is now an assistant for Ron Dandy, another transplanted New England trainer. Juan, the youngest, is an exercise rider.

Asked approximately when he made that move to Parx, Martinez rattles off the exact date: Dec. 15, 2012.

“I remember it because it was the best thing I ever did in my life,” Martinez said.

‘Never too late to start’

Aro took him on as a hotwalker, but Martinez had lost some muscle memory for the job after being away from horses for a decade.

“I had to basically learn everything again,” Martinez explained. “Because from 10 years old to 19 years old, I hadn’t done anything with horses. I hadn’t been around them. But I always had a really good connection with them.”

Later in the 2010s, Martinez worked as a groom for trainer Scott Lake. In the summer of 2020, he learned that he and his high school sweetheart were going to become the parents of a baby girl, and this got him thinking about trying to get a better-paying racetrack job.

Juan kept pestering his brother to get on horseback and get licensed. One day Martinez accompanied Juan to a local farm where he exercised horses. The farm’s trainer had heard that the older Martinez brother wanted to give riding a shot, so he handed Martinez a helmet and gave him a leg up on a massive Quarter Horse nicknamed Gorilla because of his size and strength.

“At that farm, it takes four rounds to jog a mile,” Martinez said. “By the third round my hands were asleep, and I thought he was going to run off with me. But when I laid back, he relaxed. And the more I did that, the more he got along with me.”

The trainer told him no other rider had ever had such kinship with Gorilla.

“What I like about you was you didn’t panic, you didn’t get scared, you stayed on the horse so he could do his job,” Martinez said the farm’s trainer told him.

Back at Parx, Martinez’s father had acquired three of his own horses that he cared for in addition to his work for Aro. Although initially reluctant to let his son get licensed and jog them, he relented. At age 27, after a lifetime at the races, Martinez took his first twirl around the track on horseback.

Soon after, someone from John Servis’s barn approached Martinez, complimented his style, and asked who he worked for. Martinez said he only got aboard his dad’s three horses. The Servis outfit was looking for a galloper, but would let him start learning that skill by jogging. It was a Thursday-could he start on Monday?

“I can start today if you need me,” Martinez beamed by way of reply.

Martinez credits Servis with teaching him to gallop and breeze horses the right way for the last 3 1/2 years.

“I turned into his main two-minute-licker,” Martinez said. “I hit every exact second that he asked me. He’d test me-1:56, 1:58-and I’d hit them. He told me, ‘Kid, you’ve got a clock in your head.’”

Francisco Martinez receives the “initiation” celebration after capturing his first career win | EQUI-PHOTO.

It was also Servis who nominated Martinez to ride in the Amateur Riders Club of America series at Delaware and Laurel. Those are pari-mutuel races in which riders are allowed to tack higher weights well into the 130-plus pound range.

Martinez won the very first amateur race he attempted, on Oct. 6, 2022, at Delaware aboard Boffo Kid (Friesan Fire), who won by a neck with a furious late drive in an off-the-turf route.

“I was just so happy to be in the race that I forgot to put on my goggles,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I was just getting hit with dirt, dirt, dirt. At the three-quarters pole I said, “Should I bring my goggles down?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I gallop like this every morning. I’ll just leave them off.”

He competed in that series through 2023, winning two of seven races over two years. The amateur jockeys do not get awarded any purse money, and although Equibase lists the wins on their lifetime records, the victories don’t count against an apprenticeship if a rider does turn pro.

At Parx, Martinez also got a taste of true horsepower during that time. When trainer Bob Baffert shipped Reincarnate (Good Magic) and Adare Manor (Uncle Mo) to run in a pair of Grade I stakes there, Servis recommended Martinez to get on them in the mornings.

As 2024 neared, Martinez knew it was now or never for taking his shot at being a jockey. Friends in the Parx riding colony were asking him what he was waiting for. His main concerns were getting his weight down from 118 to 110 without resorting to unhealthy measures, and dealing with the loss of steady income from exercising horses. As a jockey, he would still be getting aboard horses in the mornings, only now he’d have to do it for free in exchange for the never-certain prospect of getting mounts on them in the afternoons.

When Martinez told Servis what he was planning to do, the trainer further complicated the decision by saying he had just been about to offer Martinez an assistant’s job.

“I told John, ‘I want to try this, because if I don’t do it, I’m going to regret it,’” Martinez said.

Martinez cut down his weight via diet and intense gym sessions, and February was supposed to be his target to start riding in races. Then his brother Juan broke five ribs in a training accident when his saddle slipped sideways trying to pull up a rank horse, and Martinez delayed his debut.

“He got stuck next to the rail,” Martinez said. “But Juan says the rail saved his life, because if not, that horse would have been dragging him on the ground.”

Martinez finally rode in his first race six weeks ago. He was 11th and last and didn’t hit the board for a week, but was not deterred.

When Martinez hit the winner’s circle Apr. 10, it unlocked more opportunities. After initially hustling his own mounts without an agent, Martinez has since teamed with Richard Englander, who has him booked on 18 mounts at Parx this Monday through Wednesday, plus two more at Aqueduct on Thursday.

“I’d been wanting to do this since I was little, but I never got the chance,” Martinez said. “And now that I’m doing it, I want to get everything out that I always wanted to get out. Every time I ride I try to give my all. It doesn’t matter if the horse is a long shot, what the odds are. If I get along with the horse, I’m at peace with my heart.”

Although Martinez said he has accepted some good-natured ribbing about being a rookie at age 30, he replies pensively when asked what his advice would be to others looking to fulfill a difficult dream later in life.

“It’s never too late to start,” Martinez said. “God is always, always open to anybody, and He will push you if you talk to Him. That’s one thing that I have learned and believe in. And I believe that thanks to Him, I’m on the right track now.”

The post Week In Review: A 30-Year-Old Bugboy’s First Win: ‘The One You Least Expect’ appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Got questions? Please complete the form below and we’ll get back to you asap.

Join Bobby's Newsletter

Enter your email to sign up for Bobby’s newsletter get new racing tips right in your inbox.