01/14/2010 12:00AM

Jockey's persistence with Baffert paying off


ARCADIA, Calif. - The kid would not go away.

Every time Martin Garcia saw Bob Baffert last fall, he would barrage the Hall of Fame trainer with questions. When are you going to give me a ride? When can I work horses for you? Please give me a chance.

"I bothered him a lot," Garcia said. "I think he got tired of me."

Baffert found a way to quiet Garcia. He began using Garcia to work horses, which led to a few mounts in the fall, which led to Garcia riding some of Baffert's best 3-year-olds.

Garcia had nothing to lose. Now, he may have everything to gain.

In the first three weeks of the Santa Anita meeting, Garcia has won aboard such important Baffert-trained 3-year-olds as Take Control, who is an A.P. Indy colt out of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, and Tiny Woods, an allowance race winner on Dec. 30.

"He's given me a chance with some good horses," Garcia said.

A native of Veracruz, Mexico, the 5-foot-1-inch Garcia's new alliance with Baffert may lead to career milestones soon. So far, Garcia, 25, has won three Grade 3 stakes in his career, most recently the Vernon Underwood Stakes on Kinsale King for trainer Carl O'Callaghan at Hollywood Park last month.

This weekend, Garcia rides the Baffert-trained Freedom Star in Sunday's Grade 2 El Encino Stakes for 4-year-old fillies. Garcia was aboard Freedom Star when she won an allowance race at Hollywood Park last month.

While perseverance helped Garcia get into Baffert's stable, the confidence he has shown has impressed the trainer. In the moments before Take Control made his career debut on Dec. 30, Baffert was hedging his expectations, telling Garcia the colt would need a race.

Garcia would hear none of it.

"Going in, he told me he's going to win," Baffert recalled. "I didn't think he'd win. I thought he was too green. I was just giving him a race."

Take Control, owned by Kaleem Shah, raced at the back of the seven-horse field for the first half of the one-mile maiden race and appeared beaten on the second turn. But Garcia urged the colt and began getting a response in early stretch. Take Control took the lead in the final furlong and won by 1 1/2 lengths.

"He came back, and said, 'See, I told you,' " Baffert recalled. "'What are you worried about?'

"I like the fact that I feel confident when I put him on a good horse, that he can get him there," Baffert said. "On Take Control, he got him through there and he had a lot of confidence."

Take Control's next race has not been decided. An allowance race is a possibility, followed by a 3-year-old stakes. There will be no margin for error if Take Control is to make the Kentucky Derby.

Whether Garcia is involved with the colt remains to be seen.

Baffert has made it clear that Garcia is not a certainty to keep the mount and has yet to reach a status in the stable similar to champion jockey Garrett Gomez, who rides Baffert's top 3-year-old, Lookin At Lucky.

Put simply, Baffert wants Garcia to continue paying his dues.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Baffert said of jockey assignments. "When people see that he's riding better horses, I think he'll pick up better horses from people. I'll be taking him off of some and switching him around. He handles that well. The only way he'll become polished is by riding young horses. Like [Joe] Talamo, I think they're going to be great riders."

Garcia desperately wants to retain the ride on Take Control. He saw Take Control's potential.

"He's really green," Garcia said. "He's just learning. He took off when he got to the clear."

At the same time, the jockey knows there will be a day when Baffert delivers bad news.

"He said he has some stakes for me, but I've got to see," he said. "I'd like to ride some big ones. To work for him is amazing for me. I've got to do my best and work every day."

Garcia began riding in summer 2005 in Northern California, two years after arriving from Mexico. He did not speak English when he arrived. Garcia was working in a deli, and the owner introduced him to former jockey Mark Hanna, which led to work as an exercise rider in Northern California.

Garcia's first victory came at the Bay Meadows Fair in 2005, and he tied the legendary Russell Baze for the riding title at the 2006 Bay Meadows meeting. The success was enough for Garcia to head south, where he immediately finished third in the jockeys' standings in the 2006 Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting.

The 2006 season remains his most successful, with earnings of $6,079,804. His mounts earned more than $4.3 million in 2007 and more than $3.6 million last year. While Garcia was always capable of winning a stakes, he knew his career needed a boost.

Pestering Baffert has turned out to be a smart move.

"He started helping me out, working horses," Baffert said. "I've always thought he was a good little rider. I decided to put him on some, and he gets a horse to relax. He's little and very aggressive. He finishes good on a horse.

"Sometimes you've got to work 30 to ride one or two. I feel comfortable with him. I speak fluent Spanish, and we talk we speak nothing but Spanish. He's got a lot of savvy. He can come back and say this horse needs that and needs to do something in a special way."

Garcia has already had a roller-coaster meeting. Through Sunday, he had just 1 win in 27 mounts in 2010 this year.

"It will come around," he said. "Sometimes you get beat a nose and sometimes you win by a nose."

While he once struggled with English - past conversations tended to drop off rapidly after his greeting of "Hello, Senor" - he feels more comfortable speaking the language. Such skills will be vital for Garcia to be more successful.

"I understand a lot and what they tell me," he said. "It takes a little bit to learn. You've never finished learning."