05/30/2001 12:00AM

Martinez still has heart in Kentucky


MIAMI - Willie Martinez has ridden in three Kentucky Derbies, won races with such nationally renowned horses as Silverbulletday, Chilukki, Lu Ravi, and Bourbon Belle, and he has been among the leading riders on the Kentucky circuit for the past decade. So it came as something of a surprise when, less than two weeks before the opening of the 2001 Calder meet, Martinez announced he was switching his tack to south Florida for the summer.

"I had been a little down for a while and lost confidence in myself," said Martinez. "I needed to take a new road and regain focus. I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anybody when it comes to my riding, only to myself. And right now, I feel real good about myself. I don't expect anything to come easy down here, but I'm working hard and I'm looking forward to having a very good summer."

Martinez, 30, delivered quickly, scoring three victories during the opening week of the Calder meet. He began his career in Florida in 1989 at Tampa Bay Downs, where he still holds the record for victories in a single meeting (123). After riding briefly and sharing the jockey title at Hialeah's aborted meet in 1990 he moved to Kentucky, where he has been a mainstay until earlier this year.

"My heart is in Kentucky, and eventually I'll go back there again, but I just needed a change mentally," Martinez said.

Martinez has won riding titles at Keeneland, Turfway, and Ellis Park, and he has won numerous major stakes races. But he still calls his Kentucky Derby experiences the highlights of his career.

Martinez rode his first Derby aboard Mahogany Hall in 1994 at age 23. "But nothing compared," said Martinez, "to when I rode Valhol for my friend Dallas Keen in 1999. That was a trip and a half, what with all the controversy surrounding the horse." (Valhol had crossed the wire first in that year's Arkansas Derby but his jockey was found to have carried an electrical device during the race.)

"It was a crazy atmosphere. I was still in shock after riding my first Derby, but I really wasn't prepared for all the media attention we received with Valhol. Unfortunately, the horse just didn't run his race that day. But it sure was a lot of fun."

Azpurua's juveniles looking good

Trainer Leo Azpurua Jr. usually has a couple of precocious juveniles at the ready for the opening of the Calder meet and this year is no exception. Carson's Baby was the first of the Azpurua babies to make a mark, winning her debut by 4 3/4 lengths, covering 4 1/2 furlongs in 53.17 seconds, coming within two fifths of the track record despite racing over a track that was a little on the deep side.

Carson's Baby is a homebred son of Carson City owned by the Nasascolo Stud Inc. Baby Feels So Good, the dam of Carson's Baby, "has produced several stakes winners including Talamanca," said Azpurua. "Hopefully she'll be another in the making."

Azpurua is pointing Carson's Baby to the $100,000 JJ'sdream Stakes, a race he won last year with Distinct.

Another 2-year-old to run impressively during the opening week of the meet was Dear Murray, an easy winner of Monday's opener under a $50,000 price tag.