'I can’t believe that the time has arrived,' former MLB star says
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By Mike Kane, Thoroughbred News Service
Though owning race horses had long been a goal for Victor Martinez, the former Major League baseball star didn’t expect that his tiny new stable would produce a Kentucky Derby starter in just over 13 months.
King Guillermo’s stunning victory at odds of 49-1 in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 7 yielded 50 qualifying points, more than enough to assure at spot in the Kentucky Derby field. In the 1:42.63 it took for King Guillermo to cover the 1 1/16 miles, Martinez, 41, quickly moved from enthusiastic neophyte owner to an overjoyed neophyte owner in position to win one of the most important races in the world.
During his long and distinguished baseball career, Martinez said he told his buddies, among them Miguel Cabrera and Anibal Sanchez, about the goal for his stable. A couple of days after King Guillermo beat the favorite Sole Volante by 4 ¾ lengths, Martinez laughed as he recalled those conversations.
“I’ve been saying this for maybe 10 or 15 years,” he said, “playing around with my teammates, saying ‘Some day I’m going to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby. You just watch.’
“Right now, I just can’t believe that the time has arrived, and so quick.”
Without question, the Martinez-to-the-Kentucky Derby timeline is remarkable. The five-time all-star retired at the end of the 2018 season, bought three horses in April 2019, had his first starter on Sept. 29 and eight more races and a total of two wins later was bound for Churchill Downs.
Martinez said his minor-league baseball career took him to Louisville, Ky. in 2003 as a member of the Buffalo Bisons, the International League affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. The Bisons played the Louisville Bats, but the 24-year-old catcher never visited the world-famous track on Central Avenue. Promoted to the majors that summer, he thrived as a designated hitter while playing for the Indians, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. Martinez played in 1,973 major-league games, hit 246 home runs, drove in 1,178 runs and had a .295 batting average.
It was no accident that Martinez and his wife Margret embraced racing soon after his days as a professional athlete ended.
“We come from a place in Venezuela, Ciudad Bolivar, that used to have a racetrack,” he said.
“We always liked horse racing. We were never into betting. We just went to the racetrack and watched the horse races. When I was playing baseball I really didn’t have time to get involved in any of that. So it was when I retire maybe I can buy a couple of horses and we can go out there and have fun to see them race.”
The Martinezes had planned to return home and buy a farm when he retired, but because of the major political and economic problems in Venezuela they bought a 2,500-acre cattle ranch in Okeechobee, Fla., in 2016. They named the spread Victoria’s Ranch – all four of their children have Victor or Victoria in their names – which is a 90-minute drive from their home in the Orlando area. Martinez said Victoria’s Ranch is home to more than 600 cows and 35 bulls. They sell the calves.
Fellow Venezuelan Wilfredo Polidor was Martinez’ agent throughout his career and was the link to trainer Juan Carlos Avila. A standout in Venezuela, Avila has been based in South Florida since March 2018.
While Martinez acknowledges that he doesn’t have much background in the sport and is in the midst of a crash course in Horse Racing 101, he had a firm opinion about how to get started.
“I decided that I didn’t want to buy a horse that is already racing,” he said. “I wanted to buy a horse, a 2-year-old, to start the dream right from the beginning. That’s why we decided to go to the sales and get a colt.”
Avila picked out King Guillermo, purchasing the son of 2010 juvenile champion Uncle Mo for $150,000 at the OBS April sale. Martinez named the colt for his late father, who died when he was seven years old. He also purchased a colt he named Tio Wil – “tio” is uncle in Spanish – for his mother’s late brother, Wilfredo. The third member of his Victoria’s Ranch stable is Princess Coro, a filly by Cairo Prince named for his mother, Margot Coromoto Martinez.
“All of the credit here goes to Juan Carlos Avila,” Martinez said. “He’s been training for over 30 years in Venezuela. This guy has an eye. We were looking and looking and he was saying, ‘I don’t like this one, I like this one, I like this one, and I don’t like this one.’ It’s pretty amazing. I always say, ‘Man, I would rather be lucky than good.’ God put the right people in front of me.”
Through March 13, King Guillermo is Martinez’ lone winner from nine total starts, all in South Florida. He was well-beaten as the favorite in a dirt sprint in September, broke his maiden at a mile on the turf then finished third to eventual Sam F. Davis winner Sole Volante in the Pulpit Stakes, at a mile on turf, on Nov. 30 at Gulfstream Park. Most handicappers gave him no chance off a layoff in his return to dirt in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he drew post 11 in the field of 12.
“We always knew what we had. We always believed in him,” Martinez said. “I remember when he made his debut at 5½ furlongs on dirt. He didn’t do good. He was the favorite and he ended up sixth of 14 horses in the race. It was his debut. He might be scared out there with dirt coming into his face. There were a lot of people who said he was a turf horse. So we decided to put him on turf, and we went from 5½ furlongs to a mile on turf. He came out and won that race by more than six lengths. We were like ‘Oh-kay’.”
Even though people assured him that he had a turf horse after the Pulpit, Martinez wanted to get King Guillermo back on dirt.
“I still had it in the back of my head that in every workout he was doing five furlongs in :58 and :59 (seconds) and they were telling me that he was doing it effortless,” Martinez said. “I talked with Juan Carlos and I said, ‘Listen, man, I was an athlete once and I always believe in second chances. You give people a chance.’ Everything that I am getting to know about horse racing is with him because I don’t know anything about horse racing.
“I told him I think he deserves one more shot on dirt, but if he’s going to touch the dirt, it should be in a race that gives points for the Kentucky Derby. He’s not going to be in just any dirt race. He’s going to race in a big race and let’s see what he’s got, let’s see what he’s capable of doing. If we win, we win a big race. We don’t know what he’s going to do. We were talking that hopefully that 11 post is good for us because he’s not going to get that much dirt in his face.”
After advocating to take a swing in the graded stake, Martinez was ready for anything.
“For me and my family, just to be at the Tampa Bay Derby it was a dream,” he said. “I told my wife and my family, ‘This is what it’s all about. We are doing what we’ve been planning, enjoying the horse racing. Whatever happens, happens. We got into it to have fun and when you come out with the results, it’s better.”
Jockey Samy Camacho rode King Guillermo for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby and was able to use the colt’s speed to move to a spot near the rail just to the outside and a length behind pacesetter Relentless Dancer. After stalking the pace through six furlongs in 1:12, Camancho asked for more from King Guillermo, who spurted to the lead and ran away from the others.
Despite all his experience as a top-level athlete, Martinez said he told his wife after watching the colt being saddled in the paddock he was so excited that ‘I cannot even feel my legs.’” A few minutes later, though, those legs were fine and he was on his feet cheering for his long shot, who paid $100.40 to win.
“When I saw him coming in the final stretch I was like ‘Man, he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it,'" Martinez said. “Honestly, I always have respect for everybody. I played 16 years in the major leagues and I never believe in favorites. I played with the Tigers and we were supposed to win the World Series like four straight years and we didn’t do it. I never believed in that. You don’t win games on paper. You don’t win races on paper. Races have to be raced. Games have to played. You know what man, let’s see the race.
“It was a feeling that I don’t know how to explain it to you. I never felt it in any game at any stage of my career. It’s hard to explain to my friends the feeling that I had watching my horse coming through the stretch and knowing that once he crossed the line he was going to be in the Derby. So many thoughts come to your head.”
Martinez said that King Guillermo came out of the race in great shape and was sent to a farm for a week before returning to Avila’s care to prepare for the Derby. In spite of those long-ago predictions to his teammates, Martinez did not pay the original $600 fee in January to make King Guillermo eligible for the Triple Crown, instead paying the $6,000 late-nomination fee last week.
The 31-year-old Camacho, who grew in Venezuela and has been riding in the U.S. since 2011, will make his first appearance in the Kentucky Derby.
“I say this: Samy put him in the Derby and Samy is racing in the Derby,” Martinez said. “He did an absolutely great job. He couldn’t have ridden that horse any better.”
King Guillermo’s all-Venezuelan team of Derby rookies is bucking convention by passing on another prep race and moving directly from the Tampa Day Derby to the Kentucky Derby, scheduled for May 2, a span of 56 days. According to stats compiled by Churchill Downs, since 1929, the longest stretch between the final prep for a Derby winner is 42 days: Needles in 1956 and Animal Kingdom in 2011.
“I think a lot of people are worried about that,” Martinez said. “Remember, our last race was November 30th. He spent three months and a week before his last race. He showed us that he can do it so we decided to go straight to the Derby.”
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After King Guillermo won the Tampa Bay Derby under Samy Camacho at 49-1 odds, owner Victor Martinez, in black Victoria's Ranch baseball cap, helped lead him into the winner's circle. Tampa Bay Downs photos