As the grandson of a Hall of Fame trainer, Carlos Martin has always had big shoes to fill. Watching Come Dancing waltz her way to an easy victory in the Grade 1 Ballerina Stakes Aug. 24, the 50-year-old feels like he's doing justice to his family name.
“I just want to carry on the tradition,” said Martin. “It was incredible to grow up around those kinds of horses, and to know that they were always putting their horses first, no matter what. I want to be the same kind of trainer.”
Frank “Pancho” Martin came to the New York racing scene from his native Cuba and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981. He's most well-known for training Sham, runner-up to Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but also has on his resume champions like Autobiography and Outstandingly. He led the trainers' standings in New York for 10 straight years from 1973-1982 and trained a few horses all the way up until his passing in 2012.
His son, Jose Martin, trained a trio of Eclipse Award winners including millionaire sprinter Groovy, Wayward Lass, and Lakeville Miss. Jose Martin also trained a horse his son, Carlos, picked out at auction, the 6-year-old Key Contender, to win the Grade 1 Suburban as a 7-year-old. Martin passed away after a four-year battle with lung cancer in 2006.
“I wish they were here to see this filly,” Carlos Martin said. “She's really something.”
Despite his pedigree for the Thoroughbred business, success hasn't always come easily for the youngest Martin. He earned his training license at age 19 and two years later sent out his first Grade 1 winner in Buy the Firm, making him the youngest trainer in North America to win a Grade 1 at that time.
Twenty-eight years later, Come Dancing's win in the Ballerina gave Martin his second top-level training victory. He has averaged $1 million in annual earnings since the early 2000s, primarily conditioning horses in the New York-bred program, but he had to rebuild his stable after the passing of long-time client Carl Lizza (Flying Zee Stables) in 2011.
“That was tough,” Martin said. “I went from a stable of consistently 35 horses down to seven or eight, and I had to figure out how to grow again.
“I think sometimes I'm a little too upfront for some owners,” Martin explained. “I really don't want to train for an owner who doesn't put the horse's welfare before everything.”
In Blue Devil Racing Stable's Marc Holliday, Martin has found a partner with a similar mindset. Holliday isn't afraid to give a horse the time it needs, which is a major reason his homebred Come Dancing has had such a successful season in 2019.
The Malibu Moon filly made her debut in November of her 2-year-old year (2016), winning by 3 ½ lengths and suggesting a lot of promise. Unfortunately, Come Dancing suffered a fractured pastern before she could make a second start, an injury which required three screws to repair.
Holliday gave her an entire year away from the races, and Come Dancing returned in December of her 3-year-old year to win an allowance race by 6 ½ lengths. She ran disappointingly in her next start in January 2018, finishing 10th in the Interborough Stakes, and Holliday gave her another few months away from the racetrack.
Since the middle of 2018, Come Dancing has not finished worse than fifth in nine starts, and she has won three of her last four races. The filly's big breakthrough came in April when she led throughout and won the seven-furlong G3 Distaff Handicap by 7 ¾ lengths to earn a 114 Beyer Speed Figure. In her next start, Come Dancing broke a bit slowly but was still able to win the G2 Ruffian over a mile by 6 ¾ lengths.
Stretched to 1 1/16 miles for the G1 Ogden Phipps, Come Dancing stumbled at the break and rushed up to the lead, only to be defeated by Midnight Bisou in the stretch run.
“There's no shame in losing to a filly like that,” Martin said.
He cut her back to seven furlongs for the G1 Ballerina and remembers his mouth going dry when the announcer said Come Dancing was at the back of the five-horse field after being pinched back at the break.
Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano wasn't worried at all, however.
“On paper, she looked like the horse to be in the lead, but in my heart I felt she didn't have to be on the lead today,” Castellano said. “She didn't break sharp out of the gate. I took my time to move up and control the race. She's a wonderful filly and she's so kind. You can do whatever you want with her.”
Castellano swung her out to the center of the track early, allowing Come Dancing to swallow up the field at her own pace. She took the lead while three-wide on the far turn and pulled away down the stretch, winning by 3 ½ lengths to earn an expenses-paid berth to the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
“I was thinking we won a Grade 1 at Saratoga and we kept the Martin family and the Blue Devil [Racing Stable] family in a good frame of mind going into the Breeders' Cup,” said Martin. “She's just so versatile, and she's even better this year at 5. It's such a tribute to Marc and his patience as a true horseman… he's the kind of owner I want to work for.”
Martin doesn't yet know if Come Dancing will have another prep race before the World Championships at Santa Anita.
“There are 10 weeks between races,” he said. “I think she's shown that, when given time between races, that she fires her best shot.
“I think she could be just as good at six but if she does well at the Breeders' Cup, I'd like to see her retire and go enjoy another career making babies.”
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