Hall of Fame trainer Frank “Pancho” Martin passed away Wednesday night at his home in Garden City, N.Y., following a brief illness. He was 86.
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 third twice.
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 ever had.”
“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 lost.’”
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.
–NYRA Press release