“Johnny tapped me on the butt with his whip after we crossed the wire and said ‘I told you. It’s about time (Martinez won a Breeders’ Cup race).’
“By no means have we had the same careers, but we started riding at the same time and have been great friends,” Martinez said. “And Johnny always told me, ‘You’re going to get yours. It’s undeniable. When God brings it to you, Willie, you’re going to do it.’
“To me, that was one of the best feelings. Not only that I did it, but that I used one of his whips to beat him,” Martinez said, laughing, adding he left his whip at home due to airport security.
Martinez has returned home to compete at Tampa Bay Downs, where he set a then-meet record with 123 victories during the 1991-92 meet, when he was 21. His girlfriend, Genevieve Londono, is an exercise rider who ponies horses in the afternoons, but she currently is sidelined with a broken leg incurred in a training accident.
“I’m always excited to get back here to ride,” Martinez said. “On Opening Day (Saturday), the first race I rode, (track announcer) Richard Grunder gave me a shout out over the speakers and that felt real good. People here appreciate you for what you did.
“This is where it all began for me, and I can’t ever forget that. I enjoy the winters, my mom lives here and this is home,” he added. “As long as I’m healthy and have the passion to do it, I’ll continue to push myself to the limit.”
By winning a Breeders’ Cup race with Trinniberg for the Parbhoo family – owner Sherry, trainer Shivananda and his father, Bisnath Parboo – Martinez joined elite company.
Velazquez, for his part, has won 12 Breeders’ Cup races, a Kentucky Derby and two Belmont Stakes. Although Trinniberg represented a Cup first for Martinez, he has had an outstanding career, winning numerous stakes and titles at Keeneland, Ellis Park, Hialeah and Turfway (a record nine titles), and winning seven races on a single card at Ellis.
Martinez rode his 3,000th winner in August of 2011 at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa. Two weeks later he suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a punctured lung in a racing accident, but Martinez has always accepted the inherent risks of racing since starting his career in 1989.
“A lot of people don’t know the sacrifices we make in this business, the things we put ourselves through,” he said. “But we choose to do this because we love it, and to be able to find a horse like Trinniberg is a dream come true.”
Martinez showed what it means to give of yourself with Trinniberg, one of four 3-year-olds in the 14-horse Sprint field. He already had won the Grade III Swale and Bay Shore Stakes and the Grade II Woody Stephens aboard the horse when Trinniberg moved to Saratoga to prepare for the Aug. 25 Grade I Foxwoods King’s Bishop.
Although Trinniberg had a poor showing in the King’s Bishop, for successive weekends beforehand Martinez and his agent, Doug Davis, drove more than five hours from Erie after the final race at Presque Isle to Saratoga to work Trinniberg the following morning.
His dedication, on top of his skill, was a major reason the Parbhoos stuck with him for the Breeders’ Cup. “I’d ride the last race at Presque Isle, Genevieve would cook something and Doug would be waiting in his truck. We’d be on the road by 9 p.m., then we’d sleep for a couple hours in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot before driving to Saratoga racetrack,” Martinez said.
“We did that four weekends in a row, then we’d drive back to Presque Isle to ride that night.”
Davis owns a Chevy Avalanche, and he would set Martinez up with some blankets and pillows so he could get sufficient rest on the road to be able to work Trinniberg properly.
“Willie earned that Breeders’ Cup victory with his dedication and professionalism,” said Davis. “He earned the right to be a champion. Willie is a joy to work with. You only have to tell him where to be (in the mornings) and you don’t worry about it.”
Martinez, who rode at Keeneland the week before flying to California, told NBC commentator and on-track interviewer Donna Barton Brothers before leaving he planned to pull up next to her pony after the Sprint for his interview. She is a retired jockey.
“She has always been a good friend, and her husband, (former trainer) Frank Brothers, was one of my biggest mentors. He was one of the guys who always told me I had to believe in myself and show that I want it,” Martinez said.
That belief has never wavered, and Martinez considers himself blessed to have made so many friends in the sport to go along with his stellar accomplishments.
“There are so many emotions and things that go through your head in a moment like that, including remembering to thank everybody,” Martinez said. “God has a way of doing things, and I learned from a young age that if you leave it in God’s hands, the end will be just the way He wants it. It’s not always like we want it.
“I didn’t win the lottery, I just won a Breeders’ Cup race, and that means I’m back to reality to do my job. If you stay humble, you don’t stumble,” he said.
Saturday’s 10-race card at Tampa Bay Downs begins at 12:38 p.m. The feature race is the $60,000 Pelican Stakes at six furlongs.
The Pelican, slated as the sixth race, has drawn an outstanding field of sprinters, led by defending champion Action Andy from the barn of trainer Carlos Garcia and Grade II winner Indiano, conditioned by Martin Wolfson.
Trainer Chad Stewart saddled two winners Friday. He won the second race with a 3-year-old gelding he owns and bred with his wife Laurie. Ademar Santos was the jockey, his first win at Tampa Bay Downs since breaking his leg in a spill in April.
Stewart also won the eighth with 5-year-old Backwater Blues, owned by Tommy Ligon and ridden by Danny Coa.
Silver Cloud, a 4-year-old colt owned and trained by Jason DaCosta and ridden by Fernando De La Cruz, won Friday’s $30,000 Turf Dash Prep, a prelude to the $75,000 Turf Dash on Jan. 5. Silver Cloud defeated P J’s Back by four-and-a-half lengths in 55.76 seconds.
After Saturday, live racing will resume Wednesday. The first Sunday card of the meeting is Dec. 23.
Horsemen, fans and computer-savvy followers of racing are talking about Tampa Bay Downs’ new mobile-wagering platform, Mbet.tampabaydowns.com. The on-track site works with any smart phone or iPad, as well as most laptops and tablet computers.
To establish a daily account, visit any pari-mutuel teller and to open, set your mobile device to the track’s free Wi-Fi and go to mbet.tampabaydowns.com to begin playing. The mobile-wagering platform can only be used on the grounds of the track.
More information is available at the Customer Service kiosk on the first floor of the grandstand.