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March 14, 2020


by Mike Henry
Veteran jockey expresses his faith in the ability of his colleagues, horsemen and track employees to emerge from the current crisis even stronger, thanks fans for their support.

Even if he hadn’t swept Saturday's early daily double, Willie Martinez was going home with an inner peace that comes from being a new father.

His wife Jamie gave birth to a son, Mateo, on Nov. 3 (seven years to the day after Martinez won the Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Trinniberg), and Martinez could barely wait to break today’s good news to his family.

“Yeah, winning the daily double always helps,” said the 49-year-old Martinez, who now has 3,487 career victories, along with three step-daughters – 8, 6 and 3 – from Jamie’s previous marriage. “Now I can pick up my boy with a big smile, but I always do that anyway.”

willie martinez (2)

Willie Martinez

Like anyone associated with Tampa Bay Downs – his fellow jockeys, horsemen, backstretch workers, track employees and fans – Martinez feels the effects of the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak.

 “It raises a lot of high alerts for everybody,” Martinez said. “Everywhere you look, people are challenged. You look at the lines in the grocery stores – we placed an order on our Target app (Friday) at 6 p.m., and it normally takes about two hours to deliver. It got here today around 10:30 a.m.

“Sometimes we tend to freak out and our reaction is ‘Oh my God, the world is going to end,’ but we can only do so much,” said Martinez, who won the 1991-1992 Oldsmar riding title and has also won titles at Ellis Park, Turfway (nine times), Keeneland and Hialeah.

“As jockeys, we’re trying to take the best (health and safety) precautions we can in the room, and I’m sure the horsemen on the backside are doing the same. The racetrack is doing its part (Tampa Bay Downs will begin racing without spectators on Wednesday for an indeterminate period).

“But this is a global situation and we all need to support each other,” Martinez said.

Martinez, who rode his first career winner here in 1989, remains optimistic because he believes in racetrack people and the sport and the way of life. Always has, including the day he won on Trinniberg in 2012 and the day in August of 2011 he incurred a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a punctured lung in a spill.

“I’m 100-percent positive we will wade through this. As an industry, we’ve seen other events that have taken place that that have affected us in the short term, and we’ve always pulled through together,” Martinez said. “This is a big test; it’s so hectic because tracks are closing or not permitting spectators, and it’s affecting the economy. It’s challenging, but we have to pull together as an industry and do what we know.

“I always say, once you learn how to eat at the racetrack, you’re always going to eat,” he added. We have to find a way to come out stronger, and we will.”

Martinez was grateful to the fans who took advantage of beautiful spring weather to attend Saturday’s card. “Tampa is such a friendly place that it’s hard to stay away,” he said. “People are going to come to the races – either they want to bet $2 or $100, or have a beer, whatever it is – but they like to come here and enjoy racing.

“It’s going to be hard for the fans not to come here and for us to adjust and see no crowd, but we’re going to deal with it the best we can.”

Around the oval. Martinez was 2-for-2 Saturday. He won the first race on Dad’s Yankees, a 4-year-old homebred gelding raced by Amaty Racing Stables and trained by Sandino Hernandez, Jr. Martinez added the second on Kalu, a 4-year-old homebred gelding raced by Godolphin and trained by Eoin Harty.