12/13/2011 1:36PM

Hollywood: Garcia has shot to cap year big-time

Benoit & Associates
Martin Garcia (right), shown with owner Robert Wright, is contending for the Hollywood riding title.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – It was hardly the Christmas season that jockey Martin Garcia envisioned.

A year ago, as the Hollywood Park fall meeting ended and the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting approached, Garcia was about 2,000 miles to the southeast, in his hometown of Veracruz, Mexico, stuck in immigration limbo and visiting relatives.

“I kept thinking, I’ll be back,” he said. “I didn’t want to stress myself. They told me it would be no problem, but that I had to wait.”

Hollywood Park closed, and opening day at Santa Anita came and went without Garcia’s presence. Garcia’s work visa had expired in late 2010 and he was forced to return to Mexico to reapply. He did not regain his working visa and return to California until late January, nearly a month after Santa Anita started. Essentially, Garcia had to start over, with the benefit of a successful 2010 behind him.

What has transpired since has been the second-best year of Garcia’s career. Through Sunday, he has won 136 races, including six Grade 1 races, with mounts that have earned $8,203,564.

Garcia, 27, is highly unlikely to surpass his 2010 earnings of $10,151,584, but there are two milestones achievable this week. He can win his first CashCall Futurity on Saturday when he rides Del Mar Futurity winner Drill in the $750,000 race. There is also an outside chance that Garcia can win the riding title for the Hollywood Park fall meeting, which ends on Sunday.

Through Sunday, Garcia was third in the standings with 24 wins, five fewer than Joel Rosario and three fewer than Rafael Bejarano. On Sunday’s nine-race program, those three riders combined to win seven of the nine races. Garcia had two wins.

Garcia acknowledges that winning the title will be difficult. Since Garrett Gomez won the riding title at the 2007 Hollywood fall meeting, Bejarano and Rosario have won every subsequent riding title at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita.

“If I get it, it would be great,” Garcia said between workers at Santa Anita last Sunday. “They ride really good horses. They have more horses than I do. It’s pretty hard. Hopefully, I can keep winning.”

Garcia’s success at the highest level of racing this year can be attributed to his close relationship with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whose stable includes Drill. For Baffert, Garcia has won five Grade 1 races this year, In addition to the Del Mar Futurity, there were victories in the Haskell Invitational on Coil, Hollywood Gold Cup with First Dude, Kentucky Oaks aboard Plum Pretty, and Pat O’Brien Stakes on The Factor. Garcia’s other Grade 1 win was aboard the Jeff Bonde-trained Cambina in the American Oaks in July.

Garcia has been an integral part of the Baffert team in recent years. He rode Baffert’s Lookin at Lucky to a win in the Preakness Stakes in 2010, the jockey’s first classic win. But the relationship has changed to some extent in recent months. Baffert is employing Bejarano and Gomez on some mounts that in the past might have gone to Garcia.

“I split it up,” Baffert said. “I’ve got Bejarano, Garrett Gomez, him. He’s not going to fit every horse. He went through a phase when he lost his confidence. It’s a lot of pressure riding everything in the barn.”

Baffert, though, says that Garcia remains a key part of his team, and that the jockey has shown that with results in recent weeks.

“He has his mojo back,” Baffert said.

Garcia admits that he had a rough patch in late summer and early fall, which he attributes partially to traveling around the nation to ride for Baffert. “I’ve always been comfortable,” he said. “When you travel a lot, you lose a lot of business. You’re not here.”

His confidence, and swagger, is back now. “Look how many I’ve been winning,” he said.

Drill is Garcia’s best 3-year-old prospect for 2012. Both the horse and rider need a big performance on Saturday. After winning the Del Mar Futurity and finishing second in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita in October, Drill had a rough November. A 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5 was followed two weeks later by a seventh in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes.

Lately, both Baffert and Garcia have been encouraged by Drill’s workouts for the CashCall Futurity.

“It’s like he came back alive,” Garcia said.

The same can be said for the jockey’s 2011 season.