It’s neither a surprise nor a shock nor a coincidence that speed-based competitions involve a pronounced element of danger, since speed and safety are mutually exclusive. There are few, if any, exceptions to this particular rule.
Speed can be mesmerizing for some people, whether they’re participants or loudly cheering onlookers; it translates as some strange, life-source element that consumes many individuals. This is, in truth, a sharp-edged irony since this same life-force fascination can also culminate in death.
Such is the case with horseracing jockeys.
Australia pegs race riding as their second most deadly job. There are approximately 1,500 active jockeys across the country and, in 1996, there was a 606-per-1,000 injury rate. Safety equipment has been added and/or refined since then and racetracks undergo inspections, where jockey safety ranks at the top of the check-off list. But, still, there were five deaths between 2002 and 2006, as well as 861 serious injuries. And many of those injuries result in permanent disablement, with a chain connecting some riders to wheelchairs, ventilators and respirators for the remainder of their lives.
What is the proof that horseracing is the speed sport that faces both death and devastating injury more than any other? Answer: it’s the only sport with an ambulance keeping pace with the riders and the horses as they barrel down the straightaway or pound around the turns.
None of the risks, however, discourage the slightly-built riders who fork a leg over a racehorse. The call for “Riders up” shoots a surge of adrenalin through them. It’s as powerful as a high-voltage electric shock. They plant one boot into a trainer’s cupped palm and are boosted into the scrap of leather that serves as a saddle.
Some people consider Quarter Horse racing as significantly more rough-and-tumble than the Thoroughbred version of the sport. Maybe it is, since there are significant differences between the two.
A Quarter Horse is asked to lay its life on the line every time it walks into a starting gate. He must break (leave) from that gate in hell-bent-for-election fashion. Sometimes a horse breaks so hard and so fast that his feet lose their grip on the track surface; his knees hit the ground or his nose plows into the dirt and packs his nostrils. (Note fallen rider in photo.)
A Quarter Horse can lose a race at the gate. There’s no time for finesse, as with Thoroughbreds, in the short distances. The classic is 440-yards (thus, the name Quarter Horse since 440-yards is a quarter-mile) and the shortest is usually 100-yards. A few extend to 870-yards, which is often referred to as a distance race. Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, often run a mile-plus. Their jockeys have time to calculate where they should position themselves on the track. They have choices – run with the pack, come from behind, set the pace. By comparison, a QH must be at the front almost from the moment he hears the shrill ring of the starting bell.
Jockeys, especially in the QH world, are a unique breed. Most of them come from hard-scrabble roots and, just like many Hollywood celebrities, the good (very good) ones don’t know what to do when those ten-percent purse cuts pick up momentum. Very few have even the first idea about saving or investing. They’re high on success and the world, indeed, is their oyster. They can connect with ease to any, and every, drug dealer. Most of the time, it’s not even necessary to wait until nightfall to conduct “business.” Just hitch up your britches, walk with confidence and select your “candy.” And, eventually, you get into trouble; with many riders summoned by the states’ racing commissions and receiving “days.” They’re out of the saddle and off the track for the duration of their suspension.
Jockey Jacky Martin, who began riding in 1972, ran the entire gamut. He overturned every stone, both good and bad.
It wasn’t difficult for trainers, owners and railbirds to recognize the talent in the kid from Texas. He rode only forty races in his first year but it was enough to showcase his “talking hands.” They were velvet on the reins that provided the main aorta between Jacky and the horse’s mouth. He seemed to know instinctively what to do. He never became excited when one of his horses stumbled out of the gate, going to its knees or stuffing dirt into its flaring nostrils. Jacky just sat chilly. He picked up his horse with a minimum of movement, while his hands told his mount everything was fine. No panic. (Photo: Tracey and Jacky Martin)
Horseracing is defined by one element….speed. A horse may be fast but it counts for nothing if a rider can’t “get” that speed out of him. Jacky knew how to do it, but at the same time, he never believed in burning up a good horse. He never pushed for track speed records. His brand of riding philosophy dictated that he just win and save what remained of the horse for the next race.
Everything moved fast for Jacky – just as it should in a speed business. His telephone began ringing. He hired an agent. The earnings numbers in his official record skyrocketed from $4,652 in 1972 to $1,921,146 in 1982. Try scaling the rungs of a corporate ladder that high in 10-years. Rare. Or never.
Jacky teamed up with a legendary trainer named Jack Brooks from Oklahoma. They quickly became the “dynamic duo” of Quarter Horse racing. Race days for Jack meant jeans that were creased sharp enough to slice a loaf of homemade bread. The sleeves of his shirts, usually white or pink (he was ahead of the crowd when it came to proving that “real” men wear pink), were bisected by another crease; this one keen enough to spread butter on that earlier piece of bread.
In his early days, a search of Jack’s pockets revealed a tiny, green, plastic turtle. It was his good luck talisman and the way the token found its way into his life is fodder for another tale. By the time Jack retired a few years ago, his turtles were gold accented with sparkling diamonds. There are also bronze, lifesize statues honoring him from Texas to New Mexico.
The richest purse in Quarter Horse racing is the All American Futurity, held every Labor Day at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. The All American balances on a fertile foundation of history but that, too, is a story for another time. The winner receives a check for $1-million, with $100,000 going to the trainer’s bank account and another $100,000 gracing a deposit slip for the rider. Jack and Jacky won the All American seven times, a record which will likely go unbroken. Jack went on to add an eighth All American triumph, without Jacky.
Jacky waded through career ups and downs. There were missteps. And every misstep was marked by a savage dip in earnings. But it was the last misstep that pushed him into a corner and off the track for four very long years.
It was January, 2006, when Jacky had “unlawfully taken a Wildlife Resource, namely a White Tail Buck Deer” and had been in “Possession of a Controlled Substance to wit Methamphetamine, less than a gram.” It was not a good beginning for the new year.
The hammer fell hard on Jacky. His jockey’s license was revoked. The four-year penalty was stiff, especially when compared with the offenses of other riders and trainers and their resulting punishments. It was during that four-year dry spell that Jacky married his long-time friend, Tracey.
“We started living our marriage vows right away,” says Tracey. “This happened to be the ‘for richer and poorer’ part. We did what we had to do, including cleaning stalls and selling manure. We broke young horses and then, when they went to the track, we weren’t allowed to be there to watch them.”
The painful, four-year banishment came to an official end on August 7, 2010. Jacky, 55, had already filled out and submitted the paperwork in the various states to become re-licensed. Tracey signed on as his agent. It wasn’t all smooth sailing but his licenses were eventually approved and he walked back into the jockey colony. He was ready to again wear silks.
Tracey, a Missouri native, was experienced in the racing game. “My mother always said my first word was ‘horse,”‘ she said with a chuckle. “We were taught to work, so I baby-sat and mowed yards. I bought a pony when I was 9 1/2-years-old, with my own money. He cost $35. I paid $5 down and $10 per month. I later sold him for $125.”
Remember the craze of making donuts from canned biscuits? Tracey taught her grandmother, Evelyn Cento, how to make them. They bobbed from the deepfryer, with Tracey selling them door-to-door for more earnings. What she really wanted to do, however, was ride racehorses.
“I hung around a little match track outside of town,” she said. (A match track is an unofficial location where most of the races are between just two horses “matched” with one another.) “I went to Nebraska in 1979 and rode a few races. Then I met some people from Oklahoma, who said I could get plenty of mounts (rides) out there. I arrived with three dogs and not enough money to go back to Missouri.”
Tracey rode horses in races; galloped them for owners; cleaned stalls for $1 a pop….whatever. Her grandmother and her grandfather, Ross Cento, exercised a major influence over her and made sure they kept her feet glued to the ground.
The young woman from Missouri rocked along until 1998 when a riding accident, complemented by botched medical attention, resulted in the loss of use in her right arm. Riding was over. It was a lousy piece of luck but Tracey was grateful she didn’t lose her arm, as the doctors initially predicted.
Jacky and Tracey married in 2008 and, for Tracey, it meant marrying her idol. She was already his agent and, as soon as his license was re-instated, they pointed for Ruidoso Downs, where Jacky won those seven All American futurities. Could he win an eighth?
“We never looked back,” said Tracey, “and the big name rides started coming immediately. Some people even said, now that Jacky was back, the mountain (industry name frequently used for Ruidoso) was complete again.
“Jacky was a changed person. He cautioned the younger riders, telling them he’d had just about every liquor out there and he’d done a pick-up truck full of drugs. He told them to not mess up their lives because not everyone is blessed with a second chance. Some of those guys even started following him to church on Sundays, just like filings to a magnet.”
Jacky had racing back and racing had Jacky back. He was riding the equine movers and shakers of the Quarter racing industry and he was speeding along the rails of the most incredible comebacks ever witnessed in the business. He was on a glory train that hauled in $3,245,679 in earnings in 2010. Everyone wanted to book Jacky to take them to the finish line at the head of the pack.
A truly good rider….a dedicated rider….doesn’t limit himself to just the big pot races. Instead, he builds relationships with trainers and owners and their horses. He gallops in the early mornings, learning about a horse’s personality and idiosyncracies, which enables him to do a better riding job when the important money is on the line.
Jacky, now 56, was booted on to the back of Phire Power on September 2. It was a cheap race, with $325 going to the winning jockey. He was in no way obligated to the take the mount because, in horseracing, the ambulance doesn’t know the difference in purse amounts. It follows at the same speed, regardless. He’d already qualified the fastest finalist, Ochoa, for the September 5, $2.4-million All American Futurity finals. A win on Labor Day would net $140,000 and secure his place in the record books with eight victories in the prestigious event.
He didn’t make it. (Photo: Jacky Martin)
Phire Power hit the finish line first, streaked across it and….fell. Jacky tumbled out of the irons (stirrups), slammed against the ground and broke his neck. He lived but he hasn’t moved from the neck down since September 2. And, on September 5, Ochoa won the All American Futurity.
Jacky survives on a respirator in a Houston, Texas, rehab facility, while Tracey stands guard with the ferocity of a mama tiger. She’s steadfast, something she learned when selling those biscuit donuts. With the help of high-powered racing mogul R.D. Hubbard, she’s sent her husband’s medical records to a handful of prominent doctors around the country. Hubbard also donated $100,000 toward the fallen jockey’s care.
On September 2, when the accident happened, Jacky’s official earnings column stood at $1,802,024. He’s ridden nearly 3,000 races for a total of $46.4-million since 1972. He received a tremendous gift for the equally tremendous gift he gave.
As Tracey observed earlier, she and Jacky are living their wedding vows.
“We’re in the ‘better or worse’ phase right now,” she said, “and I’ll never give up believing that Jacky will be God’s modern day miracle.”
Hopefully, her abiding faith will be abundantly rewarded.