By Richard Chamberlain
“It’s the very essence of horse racing: “My horse is faster than your horse.”
When we’re talking fast, we’re talking American Quarter Horses, the fastest horses on earth. And when we’re talking about riding the fastest horses on the planet, we’re talking about jockeys like Jacky Martin, G.R. Carter Jr., Cody Jensen and Eddie Garcia.
So then we’re talking about the riders who have won the Jacky Martin Award.
Anyone with a passing interest in Quarter Horse racing knows about Jacky Martin, who was left a quadriplegic when he went down in a race at Ruidoso Downs on September 2, 2011. That was two days before Labor Day, when trainer Dwayne “Sleepy” Gilbreath had scheduled Martin to ride Ochoa in the 53rd running of the All American Futurity (G1), the quarter-mile sprint that embodies the very essence of Quarter Horse racing. Martin had already won the All American a record seven times (for the now-retired American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame trainer Jack Brooks, with Moon Lark in 1978; Mr Master Bug, 1982; Mr Trucka Jet,1985; Merganser and Strawberry Silk,1988-89; Dash Thru Traffic, 1992; and Eyesa Special, 2000). Set to go for his eighth score in Quarter Horse racing’s marquee event, Martin had ridden Ochoa to the fastest qualifying time in the 26 trials.
The show goes on, of course, especially when we’re talking about a $2.4 million race, whose purse then was the record for a Quarter Horse race and that season’s richest for 2-year-olds of any breed in North America. Gilbreath gave the mount on Ochoa to Roy Baldillez (whose brother Alex won the 1987 All American aboard Elans Special). Ochoa went to post as the favorite in the final and the Tres Seis gelding returned with the rider’s first win in the race and the trainer’s third.
“I’m glad we got it done for Jacky, because he doesn’t deserve what’s going on with him right now,” Gilbreath said in the winner’s circle, which he had visited with previous All American winners On A High (ridden by Steve Harris in1983) and Refrigerator (under Kip Didericksen, 1990). “He’s a great rider, a great horseman.”
The Jockeys’ Guild agreed. Five months later, at its assembly in January 2012, the Guild saluted Martin with the award in his own name. Modeled on the George Woolf Memorial Award for Thoroughbred riders, the Jacky Martin Award – like the Sam Thompson Memorial Award, presented by Speedhorse magazine at Ruidoso Downs – is neither a performance-based award nor a popularity contest, but an acknowledgement of riders whose careers and personal character have had a positive influence on Quarter Horse racing and are role models for their peers on and off the track.
“We gave the first one to Jacky,” says Carter, the record-breaking Quarter Horse rider who serves the Guild as a Senator and vice-chairman of the board of directors. “We honored Jacky and created the award at the same time. We wanted to honor someone who supported the Guild throughout their career and showed great courage in doing so. Jacky is a great rider, a great horseman and a great friend.”
Martin’s wreck on that Black Friday ended a career in which he had piloted 2,975 winners from 14,367 mounts, with 2,216 seconds and 1,856 thirds. Martin still is the sport’s second-all-time second-leading jockey by money earned, having ridden the earners of more than $46.4 million.
Carter is first in both wins and earnings, and in 2013 took home the second Jacky Martin Award. A two-time winner of the All American Futurity (Falling In Loveagain in 1998 and Stolis Winner, 2008), Carter eclipsed Martin’s record by earnings in 2008, and last year broke Alvin “Bubba” Brossette’s record of 3,631 career wins. Still going strong at age 47, the 10-time AQHA Champion Jockey has ridden more than 3,700 winners and the earners of more than $67 million.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me what the secret to success is,” Carter says. “There’s no secret. It’s about focusing, making a plan and working hard at whatever you do. And not giving up. You’re going to have pitfalls. The true measure is how you handle the good times and the bad. You can’t let either one of them get you too up or too down. You have to take the good with the bad. Even if you win the All American, you’ve still got to look toward the Dash For Cash (Futurity, G1) trials in two or three weeks. If you’re hurt or you get in one of those slumps, you just do what you’ve gotta do to get back on and keep your nose to the grindstone. It’s a long process.”
In 2014, the award went to Cody Jensen, a rider who is as tough as they come. The AQHA Champion Jockey the previous year, the 39-year-old rider has overcome numerous injuries in his career and it was more of the same in ’14, when he started the year with the Jacky Martin Award at the Guild Assembly in Florida, debuted in a music video that raised money for Red Bucket Equine Rescue in California, was picked by his Quarter Horse peers to receive the Sam Thompson Award at Ruidoso and ended the year with his second consecutive AQHA title.
“I appreciate the recognition,” says Jensen, also a two-time All American winner (Teller Cartel and No Secrets Here, 2005-06) and a member of the Guild Senate. “I’ve been really blessed. This last calendar year has been a helluva ride. I’ve got some real prestigious rider awards – two jockey titles, the Sam Thompson and the Jacky Martin. I really couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s been kind of a whirlwind to get all those in one 12-month period. Like the AQHA award: It’s a validation, a confirmation. Anybody can have one good year, but if you’re able to get a second one that kind of validates you, shows that it wasn’t just a fluke. It was nice, and a little unexpected this year. There were several riders I thought who could have won it.”
Maybe so, but the recognitions certainly were deserved by Jensen, who has ridden the earners of more than $31.8 million and going into the last weekend of February was four wins shy of his 1,500th victory. In 2014, Jensen won Grade 1 races aboard four different horses, piloted Kiss My Hocks and Hes Relentless to national championships and rode the earners of more than $2.8 million. But his most dramatic victory was the October 5 Hobbs America Derby (G3) at Zia Park, which capped an eventful week for the rider. Jensen broke his collarbone when he went down in the September 28 Mildred Vessels Handicap (G1) at Los Alamitos, had surgery the following Tuesday in Oklahoma and five days later piloted Hes Relentless to a commanding daylight win in the $175,121 Derby at Hobbs, New Mexico.
This year’s Jacky Martin Award went to Eddie Garcia, who rode A Classic Dash to win the All American Futurity in 1993 and three years later was the AQHA Champion Jockey. Now 50, Garcia grew up in Jalisco, Mexico, where he and his three brothers rode match races on horses trained by their father. Garcia was handling racehorses when he was 5 years old, loping them at 6 and riding races at 7. Garcia came to the States at 14, where he galloped Thoroughbreds at a farm in Southern California for a couple of years before going to Salt Lake City to ride his first official races in 1981. Since then, Garcia has piloted more than 3,000 winners and the earners of more than $29.3 million, and is the all-time leading rider at Los Alamitos with more than 2,600 wins at his home track.
“I’m real proud to get the award,” Garcia says. “I was surprised with the award – real surprised! I’ve done a lot of work to earn it. It means a lot to me, being the first Mexican rider to make it big at Los Alamitos. And I hope it means something to all these Mexican riders you see now – Ramon Sanchez, Alex Bautista, all these kids who’ve come up from Guadalajara and Jalisco and other places and followed my footsteps. I opened a lot of doors for a lot of people.”
Some of those doors are for young people who have never touched a horse.
“I try to be a model for kids,” continues Garcia, who goes to local schools to clue them in. “When you’re growing up, you ruin too many years in the fast lane. When I go to schools to speak to kids, I tell them about my career, show them my saddle and win pictures, and tell them to stay away from drinking and drugs, get along with your parents and listen to what they say, work hard and concentrate, and stay in school. Me, I used to go out all the time, every night, drink and have a good time. But I haven’t had a drink in 20-something years. That was a waste.
“People think (riding racehorses) is a lot easier than it is,” Garcia concludes. “We put in a lot of time, a lot of work and a lot of dedication. I’m very proud and I’m so happy to get the award. I’m real pleased about the Jockeys’ Guild and the people who support me and believe in me, like G.R. Carter and Cody Jensen. And Jacky Martin – he’s a real good friend of mine and I always looked up to him. To get this award is big – I never dreamed nothing like that in my life.”
It’s not a dream.
“It was really neat this year to honor Eddie,” Carter says. “When I very first went out to Los Alamitos in the fall of 1990, that was the heyday of Eddie’s reign. We both now are in kind of the twilight of our careers, and I could really see what it meant to him to be honored by the Guild. He’s been a Guild supporter his whole career, and I know what he’s done for that colony out there. It’s amazing how many of those kids look up to him and follow in his footsteps. It meant so much for him to be honored by the Guild – there couldn’t be a more deserving person. He’s really been the face of Los Alamitos for a lot of years. It was pretty neat to see how honored Eddie was. It really meant a lot to him. That’s really special.”
Really neat, really special: the Jacky Martin winners – the very essence of what kind of person excels at riding the fastest horses on earth.