Change of heart Unable to quit for good, groom returns to find Derby winner waiting

Ken Rosenthal

May 14, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

She quit. She just got fed up with the business and quit. Packed her bags and went back home to Omaha. Took it easy for 10 months, then one day got to talking with her friend Clay Leon.

Leon was a hotwalker for trainer Lynn Whiting. Whiting needed a groom. One thing led to another, and Christine Martin couldn't help herself. She wanted back in this crazy game.

That was six months ago. Today you'll find Christine Martin at the Preakness barn, pampering Whiting's most successful horse, in the stall reserved for the Kentucky Derby champion.

"He's spoiled rotten," Martin said yesterday. "He loves all the attention. He's got his little ways about him. He'll bite you or kick you, but that's because he feels so great.

"He's not a mean horse. He's just ornery, like most colts. He's a good horse to work with. He does anything you want him to do."

The Lil E. Tee story just keeps getting better, doesn't it?

Born-again horse.

Born-again jockey.

Born-again groom.

Martin, 43, didn't undergo a religious conversion like Pat Day, but Lil E. Tee rekindled her love for racing, a love tested by five years of constant travel with the Buddy Delp stable.

"I was tired. I had kind of gone sour," Martin recalled. "I needed to get away from it for a while. I just wanted a break.

"I've done this before. But I always seem to come back. It's the love of the horses. I can't stay away too long. I love working the track. The excitement gets in your blood."

Racing is called the sport of kings, but it's also a sport of servants, of people like Christine Martin, grooms who work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

They don't live like kings.

They earn $200-$300 per week.

A successful horse changes the equation, but not all that much. Martin receives 1 percent of Lil E. Tee's 1992 earnings. Her share entering Saturday's Preakness is $11,480.

"They don't make enough money for what they do, unless you rub a good horse like this," Whiting said. "But for a young person that's got any resolve, any desire to be a horse trainer, this is how you learn."

Martin is not a young person -- she has a 20-year-old daughter. Yet, this has been her life since 1973, when she divorced her musician husband, who now lives in California.

In the equal opportunity world of racing, women participate at virtually every level of the sport, even when it comes to the day-to-day handling of animals weighing 1,200 pounds.

Martin grew up around horses, and a friend led her to the track. First she was a hotwalker, then a groom. For 13 years she worked the Nebraska circuit. Then she caught on with Buddy Delp.

At first the travel was exciting -- New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago -- but eventually Martin just wanted to slow down. To think, if not for Clay Leon, she might still be sitting home.

"I just needed a groom, and the guy said he had a girl he thought was a pretty good groom," Whiting recalled. "She came by the barn. She made a good impression.

"She's a neat-looking type of person, somebody you'd take a chance on. I put her in the stalls and liked the way she did things. The first week she was there, I gave her a raise."

Martin's workday begins around 5:15 a.m., when she removes Lil E. Tee's bandages, washes his legs and cleans his stall. She prepares him for his morning workout, and afterward bathes him and ices him down.

At that point, Lil E. Tee goes out to graze. Upon returning, Martin soaks his ankles in a tub and applies new bandages. He eats at 11, rests until 3:30, and then grazes again.

Martin doesn't leave the stable until 5 p.m. Of course, it's all worth it for Lil E. Tee. Her best horse previously was a filly named Robatina. "Beat some horses at Keeneland one summer," Martin said.

Those were smaller stakes.

This was the Kentucky Derby.

Yesterday Martin sat quietly in a folding chair outside Lil E. Tee's stall, enjoying a rare moment of peace. At one point Whiting started teasing her. She just smiled.

"I don't think I've come down yet," the groom of the Kentucky Derby champion said. "One of these days it will sink in."

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