05/19/2011 11:36AM

Preakness: Garcia rises to the occasion

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Barbara D. Livingston
Martin Garcia celebrates victory in the 2010 Preakness aboard Lookin At Lucky.

BALTIMORE, Md. – When Martin Garcia took over as the rider for Lookin At Lucky in last year’s Preakness Stakes, his lack of big-race experience was seen as an issue. Would he wilt under the pressure?

He didn’t, maybe because, for Garcia, pressure is not defined under the terms used for most anyone else.

Is it pressure to ride in the Preakness in front of 95,760 people, or is it pressure to be orphaned by your parents at birth and raised by aunts and uncles in a poor area of Mexico?

Was it pressure for Garcia to ride in his first Kentucky Derby just two weeks before last year’s Preakness, or was it pressure for him to make his way across the border to the United States when he was 16, his goal to earn enough money to send back to the aunts and uncles who raised him?

His is a norm that few could even come close to comprehending. Garcia’s rise to prominence is owed to randomchance, natural ability, and, most recently, the backing of Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who has been Garcia’s biggest supporter.

It was Baffert who pulled two-time Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez off Lookin At Lucky in favor of Garcia before last year’s Preakness, and Baffert and Garcia are back in concert for the Preakness this Saturday at Pimlicowith Midnight Interlude, who was ridden by Victor Espinoza in the Derby two weeks ago.

“I owe him a lot,” Garcia said.

In particular the past year. Garcia’s first big break with Baffert came in the first quarter of 2010, when he rode Misremembered to a victory in the Santa Anita Handicap. The Preakness followed two months later, and Garcia stayed aboard for the rest of Lookin At Lucky’s Eclipse Award-winning season, which included the Haskell Invitational.

Last fall, owing to immigration requirements, Garcia, 26, had to leave the country and reapply for a work visa, which forced him to the sidelines for two months. In that time, Baffert used riders such as Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario, but when Garcia returned, Baffert started using him again.

The hits just kept on coming. At Churchill Downs two weeks ago, they combined to win the Kentucky Oaks with Plum Pretty and the Alysheba Stakes with First Dude, a former front-runner who has learned to sit and finish under Garcia’s deft handling.

“Things started a little slowly when I came back, but right away Bob gave me the opportunity, like I didn’t take time off,” Garcia said.

“He’s a quick study,” said Baffert, who likes to have Garcia work horses in the morning, too. “He’s learning as he goes along. He’s starting to feel more comfortable telling me things about a horse. Like First Dude. He told me he thought we should experiment with taking him back. That’s what I used to love about Gary Stevens or Laffit Pincay Jr. They would tell you if a horse didn’t want to be ridden a certain way. He’s smart. You put him on a good horse, he gets the job done.”

That ability to adapt has been Garcia’s ticket to survival. For all he has been through, he has come outis remarkably cheerful – he walks around with a perpetual smileon his face – and appreciative of the improbable path his life has taken.

Garcia was born Oct. 23, 1984, to teenaged parents who split before he was born and whom, to this day, he has never met. During his required exile last fall to his hometown of Cordoba, in the state of Veracruz in Mexico, Garcia made an effort to find them, to no avail.

“I don’t get upset about it,” Garcia said in a recent interview. “If I had them, I might not be here.”

Garcia assumes he has half-brothers and half-sisters, but has not met them, either. He considers his family the four uncles who raised him, three of whom are still living, and a grandmother who died four years ago.

“We all lived in the same house,” Garcia said. “My uncles were like my parents, like my dad.”

To show his appreciation, Garcia has had homes built in Cordoba for all of them.

“That’s the kind of kid he is,” said his agent, Jim Pegram. “He’s very good with his money.”

Garcia used his new wealth to buy a four-bedroom, two-story home last year in Monrovia, Calif., not far from Santa Anita. There is no mortgage. He paid cash. His only luxuries are a pair of muscle cars, a Dodge Challenger and a Ford Mustang.

That’s a far cry from the hardscrabble life he had growing up and first encountered in the United States. Garcia’s uncles were farm laborers. “We had horses – ponies, not racehorses,” he said. “We had donkeys, cows.”

But not much money, a reason Garcia and two friends came to the United States, and settled inNorthern California, in 2001.

“If I stayed in Mexico, no money,” he said. “Who would help? Here, I could send them money.”

Garcia worked at first in various restaurants, and has become a proficient cook. “Not just Mexican,” he said. “I never worked in a Mexican restaurant. I worked in an American restaurant, Chinese, Japanese. I can do everything. I like spicy.”

It was while working in a deli in 2004, near Pleasanton racetrack, that Garcia’s life took a fateful turn. Because of his size – Garcia weighs 110 pounds – he was introduced to some people who worked at the track and was asked if he had ever thought about becoming a jockey.

“Never in my life had I thought about it,” he recalled. “But I wasn’t scared. I was excited. All my life, I like horses. Hearing about the horses got me excited. Just knowing I could walk them, clean their stalls, touch them. I liked it.”He was a natural. After working as an exercise rider for eight months, Garcia began riding competitively. He won his first race less than six years ago, in August 2005. The following spring, he tied Northern California kingpin Russell Baze for the riding title at Bay Meadows.

Garcia later moved to Southern California, and carved out a decent living, but not until Baffert took a shine to him did Garcia’s career take off. In 2008, he finished 69th nationally, his horses earning $3.9 million. In 2009, Garcia finished 68th nationally, his horses earning $3.6 million.

Despite missing nearly the final two months, Garcia had his best year yet in 2010, winning 154 races and finishing ninth in purse earnings with $10.1 million. This year, he is in ninth place with a tick more than $3 million through Wednesday. In a testament to the respect Garcia has earned, his biggest booster in the jockeys’s room is Gomez, whom Garcia replaced on Lookin At Lucky.

“He told me a lot of things about the horse,” Garcia said. “He will watch races with me and tell me, ‘Go here, go there.’ ”

Concurrent with Garcia’s rise has been his proficiency in English, much of which he learned by watching television.

“The news, and cartoons,” he said. “I like ‘Tom and Jerry’ and ‘Yosemite Sam.’”A conversation a few years ago usually began and ended at “Hello, senor.” Now, Garcia’s natural humor can be expressed in English, too. Last summer at Del Mar, while heading out to the track one morning on an unraced 2-year-old he was about to work for Baffert, Garcia was asked who the horse was?

“Shhh,” Garcia said, pursing his lips. “Secret weapon.”

Garcia is still learning about the history of racing and admits he didn’t quite understand last year what he accomplished in winning the Preakness. One year later, it’s still sinking in.

“I haven’t been here long,” he said. “It’s not like this is something I knew since I was born. I’m sure when I learn more, I’ll realize how big it is.”