07/09/2003 12:00AM

Martin shouldn't be forgotten


ELMONT, N.Y. - Belmont Park's spring-summer meet is winding down in anticipation of Serendipitous Saratoga, but interest remains keen in trainer Todd Pletcher's assault on a record of considerable standing and prestige.

In 1982, Frank Martin topped all trainers here with 36 winners, and nobody's done it better before or since. But Pletcher has mounted a formidable challenge this season and with almost two weeks remaining, he has 33 winners.

Pletcher, 36, with a large and powerful stable at his command, will probably create a new mark, but his success serves to remind us of the 77-year-old Martin's remarkable achievements during his 52 years of racing at New York tracks. For 10 consecutive years, from 1973 through 1982, he was leading trainer in New York, competing against some of America's best horsemen. That run was a key element in his election to the Hall of Fame.

Martin trained many outstanding horses, none better than Sham, who had the misfortune to be a 3-year-old in the same season as Secretariat. Sham, a Santa Anita Derby winner, ran his best race in the Kentucky Derby, finishing second to Secretariat, who set a track record of 1:59.40 for 1 1/4 miles. Sham also finished second in the Preakness. He fractured a cannon bone in the Belmont Stakes.

Another top-notch horse trained by Martin for New York realtor Sigmund Sommer and his wife, Viola, was Autobiography. Purchased privately from breeder Ogden Phipps, Autobiography won the Jockey Club Gold Cup by 15 lengths, beating such stalwarts as Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint.

Martin's consistent success is based on two principles. He insists on fitness and pays a great deal of attention on placement. He is a master at reading the condition book, seeking to place his horses to their maximum advantage.

Martin won a Suburban Handicap with Hitchcock, a Brooklyn Handicap with with Never Bow, a Santa Anita Handicap with Prince Dantan, and Wood Memorials with Manassa Mauler and Rube the Great.

Martin was born in Havana, Cuba, and his family lived just two blocks from Oriental Park, Cuba's principal track. He went to work for a master horseman in Albert Jardin, who taught him well. Jardin raced in Ohio during the summer months and encouraged Martin to follow suit. Martin made his first trip in 1947, raced in succeeding seasons in Kentucky and New England, and came to New York in 1951.

Today he trains only eight horses, with Carl Lizza's Flying Zee Stable his principal patron. Since the change in tax law some years ago, stables throughout the country have been reduced in numbers, and ownership more and more has moved to groups, rather than individuals. Increased insurance costs are another factor driving veteran horsemen out of the game. But there is no other life for Martin except horses, and so he continues, still getting a kick out of a promising workout or an encouraging race. You never know where a good horse is coming from, and you want to be there if he does come along.