06/16/2004 12:00AM

Claiming network keeps barn on top


COLLINSVILLE, Ill. - Ralph Martinez is the Bobby Frankel of Fairmount Park. No matter the conditions, everything Fairmount Park's perennial top trainer sends out is live.

"You can't expect to claim the Kentucky Derby winner," said Martinez, speaking of his stable's ethos, which forgoes breeding in favor of savvy claiming from tracks nationwide. "But by the same token, there's only one Kentucky Derby winner every year."

Martinez is head trainer for Lou O'Brien's Shamrock Meadows Stables, based in Collinsville. After a quarter-century of coming up short in the breeding game, the barn limbered itself up through a network of spotters around the country who tip O'Brien daily on horses that might prove efficient on Fairmount's hardscrabble oval and at other Midwest outposts where he races. The restructuring has paid handsome dividends: The 26-year-old Martinez ranks sixth among trainers nationwide with 90 wins (76 at Fairmount), and is first among the top 100 with a 67 percent rate of in-the-money finishes. (Tellingly, he does not appear on the top 100 money list.)

O'Brien, a 67-year-old St. Louis-bred food broker, boasts the exact same statistics as Martinez, and ranks second to the ubiquitous Michael Gill among owners in wins. Their owner-trainer relationship, then, is mutually exclusive, and therefore rather unique.

Martinez comes from a family of trainers, learning his craft from his father and constant wingman, Raul, and honing it alongside brothers Randy and Robert. In essence, O'Brien employs a four-headed Martinez monster, with the 16-year-old Robert serving as a key groom and Randy - a blacksmith in years past - stepping up to serve as assistant trainer when O'Brien ships horses to run at nearby Indiana Downs. At that track, the stable has notched 11 wins in 28 starts through June 15, after thoroughly dominating the meet at Hoosier Park in the fall.

* Consistent with their undercard focus, the O'Brien-Martinez stable has no entries in Saturday night's Ruffian Stakes. Sixteen 3-year-old fillies have been nominated to run in the six-furlong race. This will be the first stakes race of the Fairmount meet, which began March 26 and is slated to end Sept. 18.