By Jay Hovdey, Daily Racing Form
There are pictures of clowns decorating Martin Garcia’s new home in the foothills not far from Santa Anita Park – Emmett Kelly hobo-style clowns sharing wall space with equine portraits and handsome silver hammerings of traditional Mexican art. Garcia was asked, as politely as possible, “Hey, jock, what’s with the clowns?”
His eyes narrowed.
“I love clowns,” he said.
As a conversation starter, clowns can go either way, so Garcia’s visitor at first changed the subject to the more mundane, like his classic wins in the Preakness and Kentucky Oaks, his growing r é sum é as Bob Baffert’s house rider on a host of big-name runners, and his promising Breeders’ Cup dance card for the 2014 running Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 at Santa Anita.
That card will include Fed Biz in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Secret Circle in the BC Sprint, and Bayern in the BC Classic. Garcia is certain they all have a shot, an admirable opinion but one that is not unique. If pressed, Joel Rosario, Javier Castellano, Mike Smith, and John Velazquez also will go out on a limb and predict they’ll have a pretty good Breeders’ Cup, too. Let the games begin.
Garcia celebrated his 30th birthday Oct. 23. He does not look his age. After eight years as a rider, he broke through last season with his first Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile aboard New Year’s Day and the Sprint on Secret Circle, one of five winners from 2013 returning to defend his title. The others are Magician, Ria Antonia, Dank, and Goldencents.
Even so, big wins are not unusual for Garcia. He has filled one trophy case in his new home and is working on a second with souvenirs not only from the Breeders’ Cup and his two classics but also the Pacific Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Haskell Invitational, the Del Mar Futurity, the Rebel, the West Virginia Derby, and, most recently, the Pennsylvania Derby. All of them were aboard horses trained by Baffert, which is good work if you can get it.
Garcia also has proven himself to a broad cross section of other stables. He won the Acorn Stakes on Champagne d’Oro for Eric Guillot, the Oak Tree Mile on Liberian Freighter for Neil Drysdale, the Hollywood Oaks on Switch for John Sadler, the Strub Stakes on Jeranimo for Mike Pender, and back-to-back runnings of the American Oaks on Harmonious for John Shirreffs and on Cambina (in a dead heat) for Jeff Bonde.
“When he won the Preakness with Lookin At Lucky, I had to explain to him what a big deal it was,” Baffert said recently. “In a way, that can be a good thing. There was no pressure. Now that he knows, he’s had to learn to deal with that pressure and still perform.”
Of course, by now, Garcia knows what’s at stake. Still, he likes to approach each major challenge as just one more chance to win a race, which can be a lot easier on the nerves.
“I always think of it first as my job,” Garcia said. “It’s what I do. If I do my job and everything comes out great, then I can be happy. But no matter what job I have done in my life, I always try to do it my best.”
Garcia has an unorthodox work history, even compared to some of the strangely winding paths taken by other marquee jockeys. His story begins in Ciudad Serdan, a town of about 23,000 located halfway between the cities of Veracruz and Puebla on the 8,000-foot plateau that makes up most of south-central Mexico. The 18,491-foot Pico de Orizaba, the third-tallest mountain in North America, rises to the east.
The region is geared toward farming, but not everyone shares in the fruits of the harvest. It should be noted that Garcia was given up at birth by his teenage mother and never knew his father. He lived with uncles, then his grandmother, Natalia Garcia.
“I left my house when I was 8 years old to survive,” Garcia began. “My grandma was very old and couldn’t work, and my uncles couldn’t bring food to us because they had their own families.”
Garcia tells his story without emotional frills, as if the main character is someone else. He worked where he could – in the fields, on the farms, and finally in construction in spite of his size.
“The boss didn’t want to hire me,” Garcia said. “He said, ‘Go to school.’ But I told him I had no money and no family, and I had to work. I said, ‘Do you prefer me to work or go steal and do drugs?’ So, he gave me a test, taking the wrap off the pallets of concrete blocks. It was a lot of plastic.”
Garcia said he did it in one shift. The job was his.
“I didn’t know anybody,” Garcia said. “I met a guy there, and we got to be friends. He said he had another job, working nights. His name was Pedro.”
Garcia beamed at the memory. Life was taking a few decent turns. The money he earned went home to his grandmother, with a little left over for his uncles.
“Then one day, Pedro told me not to come out that night,” Garcia said. “ ‘Stay in your room no matter what.’ ”
This did not sound good.
“You know, in Mexico, we have a lot of gangs,” he said. “You would see 50, 100 people fighting each other with belt buckles, chains, knives. That night, they had a fight at the construction site. They killed, like, 40 people. Pedro was one of them killed. He saved my life, telling me to stay home.”
He rubbed his arms. The story had raised goose bumps. Garcia was 12 when Pedro was killed, the construction site was closed down, and he was on the move again.
For the next six years, his work put him close to horses. He groomed showy pleasure mounts and cleaned their stables at a wealthy patron’s ranchero. Later, he found himself back in Ciudad Serdan at a farm where Quarter Horses were raised, trained, and raced and where the sons of the owners sent piles of American dollars home from their jobs in the United States.
“That’s where I want to go,” Garcia said to anyone who would listen.
So, he did, getting a $3,000 loan that secured the services of a smuggler – a coyote – who led Garcia and three others into the United States near Nogales, a border town that stretches from Mexico into Arizona.
“We walked and ran all night, then caught a train to Los Angeles,” Garcia said. “After that, we were flown to San Francisco.”
The American chapter of the Garcia saga commenced, complete with all the trappings of the Hollywood tall tale that was told ad nauseam in the wake of his 2010 Preakness win on Lookin At Lucky.
Jockey-turned-trainer Mark Hanna “discovered” him working at horse owner Terri Terry’s delicatessen in Pleasanton, Calif. Urged because of his size to find work at the nearby track, he went on to challenge the primacy of Bay Area demigod Russell Baze as a first-year apprentice in late 2005 and into the spring of 2006.
Not long after moving south, Garcia was snapped up as a morning rider by Baffert, who soon began putting the natural lightweight on runners in the afternoon. Even now, with only nine years’ worth of experience, Garcia concedes that he still has much to learn. Baffert pointed out what should be obvious but often is overlooked.
“The only way you learn how to ride is by riding good horses,” Baffert said. Garcia took it from there.
“Do you know what happens when you ride bad horses against bad jockeys?” he said. “You ride to protect yourself. You almost have to ask the horse every single step of the race because that’s the only way you can make it around.”
Whether he rides them in races or not, Garcia knows the best Baffert runners like the back of his hand. He has been aboard for the workouts of Bayern, Secret Circle, and Fed Biz practically from the day they began to breeze.
“You would expect Bayern to be tired after all these big races he’s been running in lately,” said Garcia. “But you know what? He’s not. He’s getting stronger, and he knows what he’s got to do, when he’s got to work. We always knew he was a runner, but he was messing around. Now, he’s literally getting better and better.”
Garcia and Secret Circle won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint last year by a neck.
“He’s a very tough horse,” Garcia said. “But Mr. Baffert doesn’t like it when you fight horses. You need to make them happy and make it look easy, even when you know it isn’t easy. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘I will try to do it that way.’ Mr. Baffert will say, ‘No, don’t try. Do it. Make things happen.’ You have to have a winning mind all the time. Only, it’s not like thinking, ‘I’m so aggressive. I can do anything I want.’ Sometimes you need to be a little feminine, gentle. Whatever it takes, you have to make your horse want to do something, make him think he can do anything. You have to be a team. Remember, he’s the one taking you around out there, not the other way around.”
In just over nine years, those horses have taken Garcia to 1,260 wins and earned more than $62 million. He is single, possessed of serious soccer skills and a drop-dead sense of humor, and tends to spend his money on houses (he owns another one on the same block) and cars (currently a Dodge Challenger with a Shaker hood and a Ford F-150 Raptor – both black).
Garcia’s grandmother died in 2007, but not before Martin built her a new home from his earnings in America. Her memory holds him in a grateful embrace, for not a day goes by that Garcia does not think of where he has been and how far he has come – from the heights of a Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle to those years as a kid on the hustle, when Martin and his friend, Pedro, lived in the houses they were helping to build, and when any night, Garcia could head down the hill from the construction site, slip beneath a tent flap, and watch his friend perform. His act?
“He was a clown.”