ELMONT, NY - JUNE 09: A horse and exercise rider work on the track during a morning training session in preparation for The Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9, 2011 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
With I'll Have Another out of contention for today's Belmont Stakes we are left to wonder what could have been. Racing's Triple Crown is truly the toughest test in all of sport. Three wins at three different distances on three different surfaces in three different states for a three year old horse. All this in a span of five short weeks. It would be like watching a single track star win the 100, 200 and 400 meters in this summers London Olympics.
As disappointing as the news about I'll Have Another may have been, for me, horse racing is a sport rich in stories. And on Saturday a new story will emerge and the sport will go on. Other horses, jockeys and trainers will take center stage and a tiny piece of legend will become theirs.
I was lucky enough to sit down with a man who took part in such a story.
The day was June 15, 1981 and the man's name: George Martens. This is his story.
As George Martens walked his bay colt down the tunnel at Belmont Park he saw a man standing at the opposite end. The man reached out his hand as he approached and George grasped it in his own.
"Safe trip, son," said his father.
Charles Martens, or ‘Buddy' to those who knew him best, spent four years as a jockey on the East Coast before being drafted into the United States Army. After serving overseas for two years he shipped back home to New York determined to pick up where he left off at the track. But there was one problem; the jockey who had been drafted two years prior had returned a full grown man. Despite his best efforts the weight simply would not come off and he realized that if a life at the track was going to be in the cards he would have to find work another way.
Taking a job exercising horses for trainer John Gaver of Greentree stables, he quickly settled into life on the backstretch. During this time he would gallop some of the truly great horses including the legendary Tom Fool.
By 1958 Buddy was married with a two year baby girl named Cheryl. In late September of the same year his second child was born, this time a son whom he named George. The family settled in Elmont, just outside of Queens, walking distance from Buddy's place of work; Belmont Park.
With a horseman for a father and "The Championship Track" only minutes from his front porch, little George seemed destined for the races.
"I used to go out to the track with my Dad every weekend, Saturdays and Sundays," says Martens in his thick New York accent. "It was a ritual and I loved it."
George started saddling horses by the time he was 8 years old and by his thirteenth birthday he was galloping for a trainer named Jack Bradley.
"The first horse Jack ever put me up on was a big old horse named Irish Dude. He was a classic horse, never did anything wrong. He was just forward, a real good teaching horse, great to learn on."
Breezing soon followed and it became apparent that the younger Martens would follow in his fathers footsteps.
On a cold, wet December afternoon at Aqueduct on a horse named Hidden Message, the 87 pound sixteen year old's career as a jockey began. Two weeks later Martens would win his first race aboard the filly Harve a Cocktail who was trained by Johnny Campo. The win paid $72.
"I was in the 10th grade at Sewanhaka High School at that time," remember Martens. "The hours were so different because you had to be at the track from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. if you wanted to work and my mom was like ‘You've got to finish school. I don't care what you want to do with your life, but I want you to get your diploma.' So I'd work all morning, go ride races and then go to school at night."
George finished the 11th and 12th grade in one year while his career at the track sky rocketed. He would go on to win the Eclipse Award as the country's Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 1976.
"Mom was kind of nervous, she watched the races and listened to them but she would never go because she was always scared that if something happened she wouldn't be able to take it. She was a rooter though!"
Along with the wins the money piled up quickly. George bought his parents a townhome in Elmont and paid off all of their debt. "It was just my appreciation to them for standing by my decision to ride."
Shortly thereafter George accepted a contract from one of the nations leading trainers, Oscar Barrera.
"I was riding a lot of horses for him and winning. And as it turned out, his brother, Luis Barrera trained a horse named Summing who had just won the Hill Prince with Angel Cordero Jr." remembers Martens.
Barrera had made plans to run his horse at Keystone in the Pennsylvania Derby but Cordero had already made accepted an offer to ride a three year old colt named Fappiano in the Metropolitan Mile. Barrera, in need of a rider, turned to his brother Oscar for direction.
"Apparently my name came up and I went and saw Luis and somehow got the mount. A few days later we went to Keystone and won the Pennsylvania Derby! I'll never forget this, I stepped off the scale and went over for the trophy presentation and Luis said to me ‘George, have you ever ridden the Belmont?' and I said ‘No Sir!' and he said ‘Well, get yourself ready!'
While Summing was starting to find his stride in lesser stakes races, a giant of a horse nearly 17 hands tall, named Pleasant Colony was rolling through the big ones. Already a winner of the years Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the Triple Crown seemed within his reach.
By now Buddy Martens time as an exercise rider had passed and he was working as an usher at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. When George told his father the news he could barely contain himself. His boy, the kid was going to ride in the Belmont.
"He was so happy for me," said George. "It brought back all the memories and dreams he had as a jockey."
Despite Summing's obvious ability, Barrera hadn't pegged his horse as a candidate for any of the Triple Crown races until the Pennsylvania Derby win. He knew his horse would need one more work before the Belmont but with only 10 days between two races there was little room for error.
"It was 5 days before the race and I'll never forget it," smiles George, his hands tightly gripping his chair. "It was pouring rain and he wanted to work him at 6 in the morning. We worked a mile around the dogs in the slop on the training track at Belmont in 1:37. I couldn't believe it. I came back and I said to Luis, ‘All you got to do is keep him away from everybody. Don't let him get hurt.' Everyone knew about it because it made headlines the next day in the papers. Nobody had ever seen a horse work that fast in those conditions."
Speaking to the media just days before the race, Johnny Campo, trainer of Pleasant Colony made a bold prediction; "If this horse gets beat I'll eat my cigar!"
George woke up the morning of the race and went through his normal routine: a cup of coffee, a look at the racing form and a quick survey of the barns. After visiting with a few stable hands the nerves starting setting in. He had to relax.
"I wanted to get home and think about the importance of the day and what it was going to bring."
After a quick rest he left the house around 11 a.m. and went straight to the jocks room. This time his Mom and Dad were both there. This was the one race she wasn't going to miss.
George warmed up with a ride in the 6th race on the days card, a mile and a half on grass. He won.
"Everything was just falling into place. Things were going my way. I had a gut feeling that it was going to be a special day."
The Belmont was only moments away and all of the money went down on Pleasant Colony.
Then came the call. "Rider's Up!" , it seemed to come sooner than George expected.
He climbed aboard Summing and headed through the tunnel where he met his father. The two shook hands and Summing stepped onto the track and where George piloted him to the starting gate.
"He was the kindest horse to ride," said George. "He was very mature, he knew what he was there for. I knew going to the post that this was going to be the best day of my life. We were in post #6. Lucky number 6 on June 6th."
At this point in our conversation George has stopped looking at me. He's looking through me. It's 1981 again and he's on the back of his horse. The memories come rushing back like a freight train. The man before me who just moments ago looked weathered and tired is now full of energy and emotion. Suddenly, he's a prize fighter, his biceps flex as he grips the reins that do not exist and the stream of consciousness pours from him.
"He broke clean and then kind of settle a little bit and we went into the 1st turn and we were running 4th or 5th and I dropped in behind this horse that was 80-1 that was on the lead, his name was Bare Knuckles. By the time we went around the first turn and got to the mile pole and were headed up the long backstretch at Belmont the horse in front went out and I was directly in behind him and when he went out. Summing dropped his head and grabbed the bit and took me straight into that hole and when he took me, he took me from 2 and a half lengths off the lead to 3 in front just like that (snaps his fingers). But we were still going slow, we had gone the ½ in :49 flat. At the 3/8 pole he's 4 lengths in front and I look under my arm and I'm looking for the blue and white colors of Pleasant Colony and I don't see them anywhere!"
George is now standing, his eyes fixed on the imaginary track ahead.
"There's a horse just behind me called Highland Blade with Jacinto Vasquez aboard. And when I looked back and realized how easy we were going and I knew there was still 3/8 of a mile to go, I just sat there, I just sat there. And as a rider you just know when a horse is running that easy that when you cluck at him he's gonna take off and so I just sat there and waited for the 1/8th pole. And sure enough, that's when Vasquez ran at me and Higland Blade got right to me and I reached and hit Summing left handed and he took off and he beat him at the last jump. I shouted to Jacinto when we hit the wire "Who won it??" And he said "You son of bitch! You beat me by a nose!"
The 4-5 favorite Pleasant Colony finished a distant third, his Triple Crown dreams dashed.
Hall of Fame jockey and legendary rider of the great filly Ruffian, Jacinto Vasquez remembers the race well.
"I can't believe he beat me that day." said Vasquez. "My trainer told me to stay off the lead but we were going so slow. I always told myself in races worth more than fifty-thousand dollars ‘Trust yourself, don't listen to nobody else!' If it had been a fast pace who knows but George was an excellent jockey." Vasquez pauses "That race... it will haunt me for the rest of my life."
Half a block from his childhood home the kid from Elmont had just won the Belmont Stakes.
"It was just adrenaline like I've never ever had before. 70,000 people screaming; my whole family there. I mean, it couldn't have been a more perfect day."