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Racetrack's allure pulls three Barretts horsemen back in the game
The horse trailers are being loaded, time to hit the road.
It is closing weekend at the Los Angeles County Fair. By the end of next week, the Barretts Racing at Fairplex stables will be empty and the track will be dark.
The short meet produced just a minor blip on the national scene. Winners and losers came and went. Soon, most will be forgotten.
Not soon forgotten are three horsemen who once walked away from the sport, only to be pulled back. Their paths crossed this fall at the fair. One might never guess they shared a single thing in common.
One is a 90-year-old owner-breeder-trainer who also happens to be a wealthy inventor.
Another is a 49-year-old jockey whose winding path took him from successful jockey, to skilled blue-collar worker, and back to the saddle again.
The other is 28, a young man who is already a successful trainer. It is fall, and college beckons. Soon he will leave the game, again.
People reinvent themselves, by necessity or choice. They reinvent themselves at the track, and in real life. And nothing this fall was more real than three guys who rediscovered the winner’s circle at a small track where horses have raced for 75 years.
E.G. “BILL” BURNISON
Bill Burnison was a boy the first season of racing at the fair, in 1933. That was before he became a trainer, and before he stopped being a trainer. Burnison invented a nailing machine, became wealthy, retired, and became a trainer again, as well as an owner and breeder.
In August, Burnison turned 90 – way beyond average age of a horseman. Burnison is no average man.
It was a hot afternoon on Sept. 6, as Burnison leaned against the railing outside the Barretts winner’s circle, where his filly Luca had stood moments earlier. Burnison has been a senior citizen for more than a quarter-century. No rocking chair for him.
“In any business, you have to keep going,” he said. He restated it for emphasis: “You have to keep going. You work hard, but you have to be lucky.”
That luck rubbed onto bettors who know Burnison still ranks among the top longshot trainers in California.
Burnison began his training career in California as an 18-year-old kid in 1941.
“Back in those days, it was chicken today and feathers tomorrow,” Burnison said.
Burnison stopped training after he was drafted into the Army.
“I met a girl in Belgium, fell in love with her, and married her,” he said.
Burnison and Lucienne are still married today, with two successful daughters – a doctor and a cosmetics-company owner.
Life was a hard road for the Burnison family. After World War II, Burnison returned to training and was among the first to employ an aspiring rider named Bill Shoemaker. But it was tough to train horses while raising a family.
“We had two little girls, and in those days we had to travel 15 or 20 days [track to track],” he said. “I said, ‘Look, we have kids, I have to get out. I cannot stay in this business.’”
Burnison was training for a building contractor. He asked the contractor for a job.
“He said, ‘Bill, you don’t know anything but horses,’ ” Burnison said. “I said, ‘That’s true.’ So he put a hammer and nails in my hand, and said okay, start nailing that roof up there.”
It was tough work. His hand swelled from pounding nails. For Burnison, it became a stroke of fortune.
“People get a lot of luck they don’t recognize,” he said. “You have to recognize it and take advantage of it.”
Burnison began thinking of ideas to make the job easier, and he invented the first automatic nailing machine.
“I got lucky and sold it for a million and a half,” he said.
Burnison uses the word luck often. “I was born lucky,” he said. “I’m a great believer in luck. I’ve been lucky in business my whole life. People say you make your own luck. I don’t believe that. You have to be smart enough to take advantage of opportunities.”
Burnison is wealthy and humble. His office is in Beverly Hills. He said he has bought and sold companies for “millions and millions and millions.”
He also has been in and out of horse racing for 70 years. Longshot bettors in California enjoy the overlay payoffs Burnison provides. Burnison owned-trained-bred horses make about a dozen starts a year, win about two a year, and often blow up the board.
In winter at Santa Anita, Collation won at $60 and $38.40. Ata Atay paid $35.20 at Los Alamitos in 2010. Ata Benchmark returned $71.40 in 2008, and $25.80 in 2009.
Tirso Limon has been the hands-on assistant trainer for Burnison for more than 15 years. Burnison provides the horses, Limon runs the daily show. They start in Burnison’s name.
Burnison currently has five horses in training, including unraced Light Dew. Light Dew is a sibling to Collation, and Burnison said, “He looks fantastic.” He said Collation and Light Dew, both produced by the maiden Ata Dynaformer, “look like the best I’ve ever had.”
Felipe Martinez once was a jockey who booted home one longshot winner after another at the fair, including $43.80 Just Ruler in the 2001 Pomona Handicap and $63.80 Rainman’s Request in the 2001 Gateway to Glory. The list goes on.
Martinez hung it up in 2006. He retired at 41. His career was just starting to take off.
Martinez left California, along with his wife, Adrian, and three children. Off to Montana they went. “The first three years, I didn’t do much,” he said, laughing. Martinez laughs often, his smile is infectious.
He traded his jockey helmet for a welder’s mask. For seven years, Martinez was gone from the track. But now he is back, riding Thoroughbreds and winning races at 49.
In 1989 Martinez was an exercise rider, working a horse one morning for trainer Myung Kwon Cho.
“He said, ‘I want you to ride the horse,’ ” Martinez recalled. “I said, ‘I’m just an exercise rider, not a jockey.’ He said, ‘No balls?’
“I said, ‘I got balls but I got no license.’”
So began the career for Felipe Martinez, whose connection with Cho, and later Doug O’Neill, sent him on his way. Cho persuaded the young man to obtain a jockey license and bought him an Equicizer, a mechanical exercise horse that Martinez still owns.
Martinez began riding for more stables. People began to take notice. He rode Paula Capestro-trained River’s Prayer to her first stakes win in 2004. In 2005, he rode O’Neill’s turf horse Whilly to two graded stakes, highlighting the best season of his riding career.
Martinez’s mounts earned more than $3 million in 2005. The following spring, a few days after riding O’Neill-trained Sam’s Ace to a fourth-place finish in the 2006 Florida Derby won by Barbaro, Martinez hung it up.
“That was Felipe weighing career and family, and he chose family,” O’Neill said. “You have to love that.”
For three years, Martinez puttered around the house and played with his kids. He also became interested in the bronze artwork of renowned Montana sculptor Jay Contway.
“The next thing I know, there was an ad in the newspaper for a welder,” Martinez said. “I told my wife, ‘You know, it’s something I always wanted to do, learn to weld.’ Instead of me paying them to learn how, they were going to pay me.”
Martinez became a welder for Contway, enjoyed the work, and pushed riding to the back of his mind.
“I just kind of put it away because I feel the tickling,” he said. “That was a feeling I did not want to feel, so I just put it away. I was very comfortable.”
One day, Contway told Martinez he was planning to retire.
“I was not going to have a job anymore,” Martinez said. “I was thinking, my kids are going to college, what am I going to do? My wife said, ‘Let’s go back [to California].’”
Martinez did not mention anything about the races, but they both knew it would happen. He stopped by O’Neill’s stable at Betfair Hollywood Park and asked about a job walking hots. O’Neill suggested that Martinez gallop a few.
“I was getting on 10 a day, and I was dead,” he said. “My legs would not respond. I thought, seven years and I cannot get my legs back.”
His wife suggested electrolytes. It worked. He used the Equicizer that Cho gave him 25 years earlier, rode a bike, galloped horses, got fit, and returned this fall at Barretts.
Martinez rode his first winner Sept. 11, Le Heat. His second winner was for Cho, Hero’s Marine on Sept. 13.
Quinn Howey is a kid, in relative terms. He is 28, smart, and a trainer. Howey made a splash at the recent Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, winning 16 races from 29 starters.
“Oh man, that was a blast,” he said.
Howey is winning at Los Angeles County Fair, too. When the claiming veteran Lookn Wild won his fourth straight for Howey on Sept. 7, the trainer was all smiles. He was soaking it up. He knows there might not be many winner’s circle pictures left.
Training horses is a temporary gig for Howey. Classes at UC-Davis begin soon, and he will be deep in schoolwork as he completes undergraduate studies in biochemistry.
“After Fresno [fair meet], I will be out of the business,” he said.
Howey grew up in Fresno, Calif., rode event horses as a kid, and broke babies for local veterinarian Leroy Krum. One day Krum said to Howey, “Hey, why don’t you go up to the track and train?”
Howey did not know the game.
“I had watched a couple races, but I had never been,” he said. “So I studied the rule book, passed the trainer’s test, got my license, and started training.”
It helped pay for college. “I was in school before I started training,” Howey said. “Then I started training and took a class here and there.”
Howey was 20 when he took out his trainer’s license. He did not set the sport on fire.
“It took 10 months before we won our first race,” Howey said. “The first couple years were slow. Then we just started doing better and better.”
In early 2012, Howey got rid of all his horses, quit the business, and went back to school full time.
This summer, Howey was talked back into the game by Allen Aldrich, longtime friend of trainer Jeff Bonde and co-owner of Grade 1 winner She’s a Tiger. Aldrich planned a full-scale assault on one of his favorite racing meets – the Humboldt County Fair at Ferndale. Howey would be his trainer. Good move.
With his remarkable win rate of over 50 percent, Howey ran away with the title.
“A guy like Allen, he lets you run where they belong,” Howey said. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here this summer.”
Howey will coordinate his staff for a final campaign during the Fresno meet that runs Oct. 3-14. The horses will start in his name, but Howey will be at UC-Davis beginning Sept. 26. “I’m already registered, and now I have to pay,” Howey said.
Howey has a year left to complete his undergraduate work in biochemistry.
“Then, we’ll see,” he said. “Maybe vet school. Who knows? I really enjoy this, but I don’t know if it’s something you can count on long-term. It just scares me, the trends in the industry.”
Even though Howey is unsure about his future, he is certain about one thing regarding summer 2014. “It’s so much fun up there at Ferndale,” he said. “If Allen wants me back, I’ll be back.”
Martinez will continue his riding career this fall at Santa Anita. He knows he made the right decision to return. He knew it first start back.
“When I saw the doors closing in the gate, I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Martinez recalled. “I was happy. Whatever God has in store, that is what will happen.”
Burnison will remain busy with business ventures and horses.
“I have a lot of irons in the fire, and it’s all good,” he said.
As for horse racing, Burnison said, “We’ve had a lot of fun with it, and made some money.”
Neat color stories on what has been a great meet. Hope to see them all again at future fair meets. And not everyone can crack Santa Anita, so the new Los Alamitos year round might be a wider venue for the horses and horsemen and jockeys that are still competitive--just not at the Santa Anita level. There will be 700 stabled there, so they may as well write--year round--all the sub 5 figure sprints and routes for that tier, with expanded track. Just add longer card (with QH still major presence much of year). So there is TB action all day and all night in SoCal, at various levels. Could be win/win/ (for horsemen, horses getting 2nd career, and place for developing jockeys or more mounts for those not regulars in SA colony).