Hall of Fame trainer Frank
“Pancho” Martin, who dominated The New York Racing Association,
Inc. (NYRA) circuit during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, died
Wednesday night at his home in Garden City, N.Y., following a brief illness. He
Photo: NYRA photo
Best known as the trainer of Sham, who finished second to Secretariat
in the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Martin first topped the trainer
standings in New York in 1971 with 106 winners and then was invincible on the
circuit for 10 straight years from 1973-82. Although not as active in recent
years, in 2012, Martin saddled 77 starters, finishing second five times and
During a career that spanned more than 60 years, he saddled 3,240
winners of more than $47.5 million, according to Equibase statistics, including
champions Autobiography, who won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s Top
Older Horse in 1972; Outstandingly, 1984’s Top 2-Year-Old Filly, and
Sham, who won the 1973 Santa Anita Derby and battled Secretariat through all
three legs of the Triple Crown.
“His favorite horse was Sham,” said Martin’s son,
Greg. “He always loved Sham.”
Born in Cuba in
1925, Martin grew up in Havana
two blocks from Oriental Park Racetrack, where he began his career as a
hotwalker. “The only things to do were to … go to work on the track
or play baseball,” he once said. “I was a lousy ballplayer.”
After leaving Cuba
in 1947, Martin moved to the United States
in 1949 and settled in New York
in 1951. There, he began to forge his reputation as a consummate horseman who
could take other trainers’ castoffs and turn them into stakes winners. One
such horse was the German-bred Hitchcock, whom Martin bought for longtime
owners Sigmund and Viola Sommer in 1970 and who went on to post a record of
4-4-5 from 13 starts, including victories in the 1972 Suburban Handicap, the
1970 Display Handicap and the 1970 and 1971 Gallant Fox Handicaps.
“They thought he would never run again,” said Hall of Fame
jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., who rode Autobiography to win the 1972 Jockey Club
Gold Cup for Martin. “Frank brought him from Germany and he turned out to be one
of his best horses on the grass. Frank was sharp. He was one of the best we
“He was the greatest trainer at looking at a horse and knowing
what was wrong with it,” added Gary Contessa,
a four-time leading trainer in New York who worked for Martin from 1980-85.
“He’d claim horses, or buy horses that other people had given up
on, and turn to me and say, ‘He doesn’t know what he just
Behind a gruff exterior, Martin was as well-known on the backstretch for
his generosity as his horsemanship.
“He was difficult to get along with, but he had a good
heart,” said Cordero. “If you needed money [he’d give you
some]. He bought a restaurant, and he didn’t let anybody pay for one
year, and then he had to sell it. I asked him, ‘How are you going to have
a restaurant if you don’t have anybody pay?’ ‘He said,
‘When I retire, I’ll get rid of it.’ That’s how good of
a person he was. If you needed $100, he’d give it to you. He was tough
when he got beat, but you got used to it. One day I asked him, ‘Why do
you get so mad [when you lose]?’ He said, ‘You show me a guy who
gets beat a lot and I’ll show you a lollipop.’ Even though he had a
temper, everyone knew he was a good trainer. Everybody respected him and called
him ‘Mr. Martin.’”
Twice the champion trainer at Saratoga Race Course, in 1980 and 1982,
Martin won more than 20 individual meet titles in New York and ranks second
with 910 wins behind Gasper Moschera (925) at Aqueduct and fourth overall at
Belmont (531) from 1976-2011. In 1974, he won 156 races for the year at
Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont
Park, and Saratoga Race
Course, a record that stood for 33 years until broken by Contessa in 2007.
Among his stakes winners were 1959 Wood Memorial winner Manassa
Mauler, 1974 Wood winner Rube the Great, 1971 Brooklyn Handicap winner Never
Bow and 1974 Santa Anita Handicap winner Prince Dantan. Martin was
honored with the New York Turf Writers Association Outstanding Trainer Award in
1971, 1974, and 1982, and also received the organization’s award as New York’s top
trainer in 1971, 1973, 1976-79, and 1981.
“He was one of the greatest horsemen,” said Cordero.
“When I came to this country I worked around four people here I think
were the greatest: Angel Penna, Sr., Lazaro Barrera, Frank Martin, and Allen Jerkens.
Today, it’s a new generation, but of old-timers they were the greatest.
With jockeys, you get good riders and excellent riders. With trainers, you get
good trainers and excellent trainers. And he was one of them.”
Surviving Martin are his wife of 46 years, Charlene; sons Frank, Jr.
and Greg; daughters Charlene and Margaret, and seven grandchildren. A funeral
mass will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Thomas the Apostle
Church in West Hempstead, N.Y.