HE WAS ON the ride of his life. With a rich purse dangling tantalizingly before him, a television audience watching and a hometown crowd cheering, veteran jockey Eddie Martin, Jr. turned into the Fair Grounds’ homestretch on the longest of long shots, and they had a clear if insecure lead. Recalling the race a year later, Martin said he knew coming down the stretch that he would win that 2012 Louisiana Derby. All he had to do, after all, was finish, and finishing was what Martin did best.
The run down the stretch completes everything: the jockeying, the strategizing, the breaking, the rating, the race-riding, all of it. The preparation can be meticulous, the strategy and its implementation flawless, but then the rider has to finish. The best finishers don’t rely only on their whip or on their physical strength down the stretch, but also employ finesse and timing and race-riding skills. A jockey, of course, can’t finish the deal alone; the horse must finish effectively, too. And so a rider might switch his stick from one hand to the other or shift his weight in an effort to encourage the horse to change leads. In a close finish to the wire, a jockey might try to time a final surge perfectly and tap into a horse’s inherent competitiveness and desire. This is where the victory is complemented, the reward earned. As Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas once pointed out, this sport doesn’t pay lap money, meaning nobody makes a dime for leading early or midway or for any point in the race, except, of course, the finish. In the first horse race that ever rewarded the winner with cash, the prize money literally dangled in a purse hanging from a pole just beyond the finish line. Not much has changed.
The Louisiana Derby purse swelled with a million dollars in 2012. And the large numbers didn’t stop there. The Fair Grounds tote board couldn’t accurately display or even contain Hero of Order’s odds, which were exactly 109.40-1, reflecting the bettors’ skepticism about the colt’s chances. Three times in his first 13 starts he ran for a tag, or claiming price, and in those 13 races leading to the Louisiana Derby, Hero of Order had a single victory, in a maiden race, of course.
Brash enough to think such a long shot might have a chance, Martin rode Hero of Order aggressively, putting the colt into perfect stalking position just behind a speedy leader, the sprinter Comisky’s Humor. When he faded midway around the second turn, Hero of Order took over, still running strongly.
At most racetracks, the pole that signals a quarter-mile remaining is on the final turn. But the Fair Grounds’ stretch, among the longest stretches in the country, is a daunting 1,346 feet long, 26 feet longer than a quartermile. And so the quarter-pole at the New Orleans track greets horses and jockeys as they straighten for the run down the stretch; striped red and white, the marker is a somewhat ironic signal to go for it. A New Orleans native, Martin hardly needed a signal, but he waited until Hero Or Order passed the quarter-pole to begin doing what he did best, for it was there that Mark Valeski, the 7-5 favorite (as part of an entry) loomed boldly while rallying on the outside. Between horses, Cigar Street threatened. And farther back, Rousing Sermon, a California invader, also advanced on the long-shot leader.
“I had my stick in my right hand, and then I hit—boomp, boomp, boomp—I don’t know, 10 times,” Martin said, recalling the stretch run. Hero of Order responded to Martin’s whip. Just when it looked as if the late-runners might engulf him, the long shot pinned his ears back and lowered himself into a determined gear. But Mark Valeski kept coming, his momentum carrying him to within a length of the lead inside the sixteenth pole. Seeing the threat, Martin brought his hands together and switched the stick from his right to his left. He quickly popped Hero of Order twice left-handed, and the colt responded again, holding off Mark Valeski to win by a half-length.
“He just gave me another effort,” Martin said about Hero of Order. “I knew I was going to win that race. Especially when Mark Valeski drew up and when I went to the left hand. I wasn’t going to be denied, because my colt just surged to that extra length I needed.”
Martin has won more than 3,730 races (through June, 2015) in a career that began in 1980, and none was bigger than the 2012 Louisiana Derby, where he did what he does best. He finished.