The Week in Review: Martinez Looking to Go Deep at Churchill Downs

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Victor Martinez leads King Guillermo into winner’s circle | SV Photography

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During his baseball career, Victor Martinez was known for being cool under pressure and good in the clutch. It appears that he has a horse with the same attributes.

It looks like the presence of a former Major League All-Star is going to spice up this year’s GI Kentucky Derby. Martinez, who debuted in the majors in 2002 with the Cleveland Indians, played a season-and-a-half for the Boston Red Sox, and retired after playing for the Detroit Tigers in 2018, is the owner of GII Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo (Uncle Mo), who scored an easy 4 3/4-length win despite going off at 49-1.

“It feels great, just a great feeling,” he said. “It’s a dream that everybody who buys a Thoroughbred has.”

So far, Martinez is making the racing game look easy. The five-time All Star paid $150,000 for King Guillermo, who is named after his father, at last year’s OBS April sale. Including Tio Wil (Bayern) and Princess Coro (Cairo Prince), he has just three horses. They race under the name of Victorias Ranch.

When Martinez retired, he decided to open a cattle ranch near Orlando. He grew up in Venezuela and his uncle had a farm there. He doesn’t play golf and wanted a tranquil place to spend his retirement years with his wife Margret and his children. He has over 600 cows and bulls on the 2,500-acre property.

There are no horses at the ranch, but Martinez wanted to branch out and make racing part of his post-baseball days.

“My wife, Margret, and I, we always liked horse racing,” he said. “We were never bettors, we just enjoyed the sport. We talked a lot of times about it and decided when I stopped playing that this is something we would look to get into. We got a few horses and just wanted to enjoy it.”

Martinez said he paid attention to the major races throughout his baseball career, but never found the time to go to the track. His agent, Jose Mijares, knew trainer and fellow Venezuela native Juan Avila and put him in touch with Martinez. Their first purchase was Tio Wil, a $75,000 buy at the 2018 Keeneland September Sale. They shopped at Ocala last April, where they also paid $100,000 for Princess Coro.

After King Guillermo ran the first time, he was anything but a Kentucky Derby prospect. He debuted in a 5 1/2-furlong dirt race and finished sixth, beaten 11 1/4 lengths. Avila switched the horse to the grass and everything changed. He broke his maiden going one mile on the turf at Gulfstream Park West in November and came back to finish third behind Sole Volante (Karakontie {Jpn}) in the Pulpit S.

It appeared that the horse’s future was on the grass, but Martinez told Avila he wanted to give King Guillermo one last shot on the dirt.

“Most of the people didn’t know what we had,” Martinez said. “We knew what we had. The main question was if he liked the dirt. He made his debut at 5 1/2 furlongs on dirt and didn’t do very good. That’s why we moved to turf. He won by more than six lengths and then was third in a stakes behind Sole Volante. All his workouts on the dirt were still pretty good. He would work five furlongs on the dirt in :58 or :59 without much effort. I talked to Juan and told him he deserves one more chance on the dirt. He could get to run at a longer distance and I wanted to see what he could do.”

He didn’t just win the Tampa Bay Derby, he dominated, showing that he may even be better on the dirt than turf.

“He showed lot of people Saturday what he’s got,” he said.

A day later, Martinez said the thrill of winning a Derby prep had not subsided.

“I think I am even more excited than I was yesterday,” he said. “My wife and I have been talking about it. We are going to have a horse running in the Kentucky Derby. That day is about to come. Pretty amazing.”

Martinez said he has not yet decided whether or not the colt will start again before the Derby. With 50 points, he is assured a spot in the race.

“We will see,” Martinez said. “I have always been the kind of guy who took my career day to day. I just enjoy the moment and see what happens. We spent 2 1/2 months since his last race, so we will see.”

Even with the win Saturday, King Guillermo doesn’t figure to be one of the favorites in the Derby. Between the Bob Baffert runners, Tiz the Law (Constitution) and GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth winner Ete Indien (Summer Front), this year’s crop is loaded with talent. That’s fine with Martinez.

“With all due respect to the other 19 horses, races have to be raced, games have to be played,” he said. “I have never believed in favorites. You have to go out there and perform. We have confidence. We know what we’ve got. We will see what happens.”

Baffert vs. Jones

With the impressive victory by Authentic (Into Mischief) in the GII San Felipe S., Bob Baffert moved closer to his sixth Kentucky Derby win, which would put him in a tie with Ben Jones for first place among all trainers. He may not get number six this year, but it’s a pretty safe bet that, before he is done, Baffert will win a sixth Derby.

If Baffert were to win number six this year, whose accomplishment would be more impressive? You can look at it a number of different ways.

Baffert will come into the 2020 Derby having previously started 32 horses in the race, while Jones sent out just 11 Derby starters, for a winning rate of 54.5%. Edge Jones.

The foal crops were much smaller during Jones’s era. When Jones won his first Derby, in 1938, the foal crop was 5,696. When he won his last Derby, in 1952, the foal crop was 8,811. During Baffert’s run, the foal crop has ranged from 35,000 to 20,000. Edge Baffert.

Jones trained two Triple Crown winners, Citation and Whirlaway. Baffert has also trained two Triple Crown winners. Tie.

The 20-horse fields that are now routine were not part of Derby history during Jones’ run. There were as many as 16 Derby starters (1944 and 1952) in races he won and as few as six (1948). Edge Baffert.

Though Ben Jones was listed as the trainer of record for 1948 Derby winner Citation, many argue that his son, Jimmy, was the actual trainer. The horse was placed in Ben’s name for the 1948 Derby so that he could tie the record for most Derby wins, which was then four, and held by Herbert (Derby Dick) Thompson. Citation ran under Jimmy’s name for the Preakness and Belmont. Edge Baffert.

Tim Ritvo’s Accomplishments

It didn’t end well for Tim Ritvo with The Stronach Group, which announced last week that the executive was leaving the company “to pursue other opportunities.” When Crag Fravel was brought in after the Breeders’ Cup to run TSG’s racing operations, it was clear that Ritvo was the odd man out.

The beginning of the end may have come when he was tabbed in 2017 to oversee the operations at Santa Anita. It was under his watch last year that the rash of breakdowns at Santa Anita created a crisis, not just for the track, but for the entire sport.

But there is far more to Ritvo’s record than what he encountered at Santa Anita. He was brought in in 2011 to run Gulfstream Park and what he accomplished there was nothing short of remarkable.

Ritvo’s idea of how to make a meet successful may not have been for everybody. He wanted big fields and wide open races and that sometimes meant cheapening the overall product. But he was proven right, as the bettors showed they would rather bet on a 12-horse maiden claimer on the grass with a 4-1 favorite than a five-horse allowance race headed by a 3-5 shot.

Ritvo, more than anyone, is responsible for the explosion in grass racing in this country as other tracks followed Gulfstream’s lead. He helped usher in the Rainbow 6, which has become one of the most popular wagers in the sport. He helped transition Gulfstream from a track that was operating in the winter and early spring only to an operation that raced 10 months a year. In 2010, Gulfstream’s average handle for a meet that ended in April was $6.9 million. In 2020, during the championship meet, you can’t find a daily handle, on any day, that dips that low. Ritvo lasted nine years with a company notorious for its high turnover rate among executives.

When you think of the behemoth Gulfstream has become in terms of the handle and the quality of racing, no one deserves more credit the track’s explosion than Ritvo.

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