12/29/2006 12:00AM

Martinez pulling hard for his owner


STICKNEY, Ill. - In a typical year, Ralph Martinez wouldn't be sitting at a long table situated just inside the grandstand glass at the Hawthorne Race Course finish line. The Fairmount Park-based Martinez usually only runs a handful of horses this time of year in Chicago, having closed up shop at Fairmount and whatever Indiana, Ohio, or Kentucky tracks he might be invading.

But this is not a typical Martinez year, with his owner Louis O'Brien knotted in a match race for leading owner in the country. O'Brien won 194 races last year and finished a distant second to Mike Gill. Two years ago, Gill got him, 486 to 230, and three years ago, O'Brien was third behind Gill and Rick Englander. But Gill almost totally phased out his operation this year, and O'Brien and Martinez set a goal in January to land in the top slot for 2006.

But new competition arose, in the form of owner Maggi Moss. Moss has horses stabled with trainers across the country, and while Martinez ran a string this fall at Beulah Park to try and counter Moss's multi-state operation, the race - for those not glued to one of the two camps - has come down to the final days on the calendar. O'Brien had a two-win lead, 206-204, after Thursday's action, but Martinez watched Moss win a race at Aqueduct, then another at Turfway Park, to draw even.

"Now that it's gotten this close, I do look to see what she has in," said Martinez.

Martinez may trail Todd Pletcher in the money standings by some $25 million, but he has put together a pretty remarkable season nonetheless, winning 206 of 817 starts through Thursday. At peak capacity during summer, the Martinez operation has some 75 horses going. Now, the numbers have dwindled - as have the days until the outfit's annual January-February break.

"It's been good," said Martinez of his hectic year, "but it's gotten a little old driving up and down the road all the time."

The Moss-O'Brien race actually comes into play in Sunday's Hawthorne handicapping. The two owners square off in race 8, a $4,000 claimer, in which Moss and trainer Chris Richard should have the heavy favorite, Pin a Rose on Me. Pin a Rose on Me won her last start, a $10,000 claimer here, by three lengths and was claimed from O'Brien and Martinez. The drop in class may not be negative, this being the last day of this owners' battle.

Bet on Grace well-spotted

Hawthorne's meet ends Monday, and late-season handicapping also comes into play in the featured third, an Illinois-bred second-level allowance sprint for fillies and mares. Several horses here are being wheeled back on short rest, a couple being turned back in distance from routes, and the sense is that much of this field is running because there is no racing here after Jan. 1 until Feb. 23.

Bet on Grace should offer attractive odds, and looks like a horse actually meant for this spot. She last raced Dec. 6, finishing fourth in an open $18,000 claimer, and is a closer in a race that should have a wicked early pace.