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It takes more than talent to become a top jockey

Feb 19, 2008 5:22 AM

Vladimir Cerin thinks Martin Garcia is headed for the Hall of Fame. If he gets there, he’ll have to do it by winning more than $10,000 claiming races.

The 23-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico, thrives on work. When he’s not on horseback a.m. or p.m., he’s poring over past performance charts, scrutinizing how his horse might run and evaluating the chances of his rivals.

"I think he’s a future Hall of Famer," said the 53-year-old Cerin, a native of Yugoslavia who has been training successfully in California for more than 25 years. "He’s a tireless worker and a student of the game, Whenever I meet him in the paddock, he’s looked on tape at the last five or six races that the horse has run. He tries to study the Form, judge pace and see where he should be in the race."

But so far, that work ethic has not elevated Garcia among Southern California’s elite stakes riders, at least not on a regular basis. The likes of Garrett Gomez, Rafael Bejarano and David Flores have their pick of the litter at Santa Anita, where Garcia currently plies his trade. That puzzles Garcia’s agent, a roly-poly former rider named Roger Olguin, whose son, Gerry, is a jockey.

"I really don’t understand why he doesn’t get better mounts, because Martin can compete with any rider," says the 69-year-old Olguin, a race track regular who is rarely seen without his cell phone’s bluetooth protruding from an ear. "Martin is a strong rider and a smart rider. I don’t know when he’s going to ride good horses on a consistent basis, but I hope it will be soon," said Olguin, who has been an agent for 40 years.

Olguin represented Isaias Enriquez when he was leading rider at Caliente, and Victor Espinoza when he came out in the Bay Area, and eventually Garcia, who tied perennial Northern California riding leader Russell Baze for the 2006 Bay Meadows title. Baze, who recently captured his 10,000th career victory, had dominated the standings at 35 previous Bay Meadows meetings. Garcia’s feat came when he was an apprentice rider who benefitted from a five-pound weight advantage against journeymen jocks such as Baze.

Olguin wouldn’t go so far as to say trainers are prejudiced against Garcia, allowing only that "competition is tough, and there are a lot of good riders at Santa Anita, but Martin is as good as any, and not because I have his book. Martin is something special. Some people think he needs more experience, but he’s been riding for three years. Maybe we need a little more time, but we work very hard."

Garcia has made immense progress since riding his first winner on Aug. 17, 2005, at Bay Meadows. He was slinging hash only a couple years before, because when he arrived from Mexico in 2003, he got a job in a delicatessen in Pleasanton, California, even though he spoke no English. That deficiency has been a burden, in the mind of internationally prominent trainer Bob Baffert.

Baffert has given Garcia a leg up on his horses, including stakes runners, and confirms his industriousness, but said learning to turn a word or two in English might help.

"It’s not due to lack of work that he’s not gaining top mounts," Baffert said, "because he works a lot of horses every day, but he’s got a little bit of a language barrier."

Another shortcoming could be Olguin’s relative recency to the circuit, and the fact that Garcia had no go-to barn welcoming him upon his arrival.

"When a new agent comes in, it’s sort of tough to break in with some trainers," Baffert said. "And when a rider loses his apprentice allowance, like Garcia did, it can be a rough, too. When (Rafael) Bejarano came here, he was an established rider, but he also had (Bobby) Frankel and some big barns behind him. If those guys stick with you, you’ll be OK. I think in time, Garcia will get those mounts. He just needs that break.

That should come soon. "He works at least 10 horses every single morning," Cerin said. "He absolutely loves his vocation and he’s turned it into a hobby. His hobby is his work."

The homestretch

”¡ Bob Baffert says his undefeated 2-year-old filly champion Indian Blessing, who won the Silverbulletday at the Fair Grounds, will return to the New Orleans track to run in the Fair Grounds Oaks on March 9.

”¡ Trainer Jeff Mullins said one of his owners has taken his horses to another venue due to the instability of Santa Anita’s main track, which, after its latest tweaking, seemed to have reached a degree of normalcy.

”¡ And if you feel so-called global warming has heated up recently, remember, Dick Vitale is back on the air.