07/19/2012 4:02PM

Frank "Pancho" Martin is dead at 86, Hall of Fame trainer

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Frank "Pancho" Martin gets a hug from jockey Gabriel Saez last year.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Hall of Fame trainer Frank “Pancho” Martin, the leading trainer on the New York Racing Association circuit for more than a decade, died Wednesday after a lengthy illness. He was 86.

Best known as the trainer of 1973 Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Sham, Martin won 3,241 races, and his horses earned $47.5 million in purse money in a career that spanned 60 years. The Cuban-born Martin was NYRA’s leading trainer in 1971 and then for 10 straight years from 1973 to 1982. He trained champions Autobiography and Outstandingly and was voted into Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame in 1981.

Martin grew up in Havana, two blocks from Oriental Park where he began his career as a hotwalker. He came to the U.S. in 1949 and began training in New York in 1951.

Martin was the father of trainer Jose Martin, who died in 2006, and Greg Martin, a former trainer who lost his license in 2005. His grandson Carlos is a trainer on the NYRA circuit.

On the Saratoga backstretch Thursday morning, “Pancho” Martin was described as a selfless man and a fierce competitor.

Allen Jerkens goes back 60 years with Martin when each trainer had one horse at Tropical Park in Florida.

“I always thought no matter what I needed he would give it to me if I had to have it,” Jerkens said. “That’s the way he was, but he was a real competitor too.”

Jerkens remembered selling Martin the horse Never Bow, who won the 1971 Brooklyn Handicap under Martin’s name although Jerkens trained him.

“l’ll never forget – he bought him on Monday and he said you keep him and I’ll take him over after the race,” Jerkens said. “We trained him up to the race and he won the race and I had a horse in the race and he beat me.”

Carlos Martin recalled a time in 1973, when Jose Martin was battling Pancho for leading trainer in New York. Jose kept running a horse back frequently and it kept winning.

“Next time you run that [horse] I claim him from you,” Carlos Martin recalled Pancho telling his son.

Frank Martin won that year’s title by eight wins over Jose Martin and John Campo Sr.

“The competitive fire he had in him was always an inspiration to me,” Carlos Martin said. “I’ve never seen anybody compete like him.”

Gary Contessa, the leading trainer on the NYRA circuit from 2006 to 2009, worked for Martin as an assistant for three years in the 1980s.

“That guy was the ultimate horseman, he wasn’t just a guy who screamed a lot and was a wild and crazy guy,” Contessa said. “He could take a horse apart and put it back together again and make it a better horse. He was an unbelievable horseman.”

In 2007, Contessa won a record 159 races on the NYRA circuit, breaking the mark of 154 previously held by Martin.

Other stakes winners trained by Martin included Hitchcock, Identical, Manassa Mauler, Prince Dantan, Proud Arion, Renewed, and Rube the Great.

Martin is survived by his wife of 46 years, Charlene; daughters Charlene and Margaret, sons Greg and Frank Jr., and seven grandchildren.

A funeral service for Martin was scheduled to be held Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead, N.Y.