Garcia took a chance leaving home, but won on Lucky

'When I started riding, I didn't know what was Preakness, what was Kentucky, what was any race,' Garcia says

May 16, 2010|By Brent Jones, The Baltimore Sun

When Martin Garcia decided to become a full-time jockey five years ago — leaving behind steady work as a cook at a Pleasanton, Calif., deli — he did so with little knowledge of horse racing.

Garcia never considered that he would be standing in the winner's circle at the Preakness, as he did Saturday after riding Lookin At Lucky to victory, because frankly, he'd never heard of the Baltimore-based Triple Crown race.

"When I started riding, I didn't know what was Preakness, what was Kentucky, what was any race. I just know that I needed to go and ride a horse and win," Garcia said. "I didn't know anything about big races."

If Garcia, 25, needed affirmation Saturday on the significance of what he'd just done, he received it in abundance walking around the grounds less than an hour after the race.

He could hardly move five feet without signing an autograph. Strangers, some seemingly in various stages of inebriation, asked him to stop for photos. Two women planted kisses on his cheeks. Others chanted his name.

Humbled, if not downright awestruck by the crowd reaction, Garcia repeated what he told trainer Bob Baffert all week — he was just pleased to give Lookin At Lucky the ride.

"He kept thanking me before the race for putting him on the horse," Baffert said. "Here we're supposed to be worried about the Preakness, and all he's doing is 'Thank you so much Bob, for letting me ride.'"

Garcia's shot came at the expense of Garrett Gomez, who rode Lookin At Lucky to a disappointing sixth place at the Kentucky Derby out of the unfavorable No. 1 post.

Five days before the final entrants needed to be in for the Preakness, Baffert told Garcia he would be on Lookin At Lucky.

"I didn't sleep that night," Garcia said. "I was so happy to know that I'm going to ride that horse."

It was a gamble by Baffert. Fellow Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas likened it to cutting Peyton Manning. Other racing followers called it removing a Cy Young Award winner in the midst of a shutout for an unknown reliever.

But Baffert limited his analogies to horse racing, saying the switch was needed, more than anything else, to change Lookin At Lucky's luck. Like a charm, Lookin At Lucky drew the favorable No. 7 post. Baffert said he was also attracted by Garcia's level of comfort around the horse.

"Maybe he brought us some luck with the draw," Baffert said of the young Mexican. He went on to say Garcia wins about 50 percent of his stake races. "He just knows my horses really well. ... He's got a gift, like all the great riders. He reminds me a lot of [Hall of Fame jockey] Gary Stevens."

Although starting in just his second Triple Crown race, Garcia is considered one of the sport's best athletes, blessed with the soft touch of a figure skater and an innate ability to know when to seize a chance.

Lookin At Lucky laid back behind First Dude for much of the race before making his move near the upper stretch. Slowly but steadily, the horse crept up to First Dude before passing on the outside shoulder in dramatic fashion and winning by a three-quarters' length.

"I didn't want to be behind horses, because he didn't have that big of a kick," Garcia said. "I kept him on the outside of horses, and he was so free outside that he was doing whatever he wanted. It worked, exactly what I wanted, and when I asked him to go, he kicked. I think I moved at the perfect time."

Garcia avenged a 12th-place finish aboard Conveyance in the Kentucky Derby. Asked how he felt about becoming a champion, he simply said, "I feel good."

The answer made Baffert a bit incredulous, and he couldn't help but speak up.

"He's too young to understand what he just did," Baffert said. "But it will hit him in a couple of days."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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