09/16/2010 2:50PM

Sudden change of fortune for a well-liked man

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Benoit & Associates
Jockey Michael Martinez (left), with cousin Alex Solis.

They gathered in the room of Michael Martinez last Tuesday at Highland Hospital in Oakland, some 10 or 20 strong and a whole lot more than the two visitors a patient in his condition is normally allowed. Darrell Haire, the West Coast field man for the Jockeys Guild and a witness to the scene, looked around and saw nothing but fellow jockeys, grooms, exercise boys, and their families, come to give comfort at a very bad time.

“You can’t believe how much this kid is liked around the track,” Haire said. “The room was packed. But I couldn’t help thinking that the hospital people let them all in there because they thought maybe it was going to be a chance to say goodbye.”

It wasn’t, not that day, and maybe not for a long time now that Martinez is farther downstream from the lightning flash of an accident on the far turn of the main track at Golden Gate Fields last Sunday, when the 24-year-old native of Panama and expectant father went from rising star on the California scene to the latest in a sad line of horse racing’s permanently disabled.

The accident itself was even more startling than most, as Fair ’n Warmer, Martinez’ mount, suddenly found her front legs trip-wired in tight quarters and nowhere to go but down.

“Usually, when you can hear their hooves clicking, that’s a good thing,” said Haire, a former rider familiar with the sound. “You’re scared, because you’re clipping another horse’s heels, but you know you still got a chance to get out. Michael didn’t have that chance. He went down, like now – going 40 miles an hour.”

So quickly did Martinez and his horse drop from view that track announcer Michael Wrona, who takes great pride in accounting for all participants, was completely flummoxed.

“Where’s the favorite? Lost him, Fair ’n Warmer,” Wrona said when the leaders reached the head of the stretch, interrupting his call in the process. “Out of business, is he?”

He meant she, since Fair ’n Warmer is a 3-year-old filly who had won her previous race at the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale. On this particular day, she was running for a $4,000 claiming price and a purse of $9,105. Up in the stands, her trainer, Bill Morey, was reasonably satisfied with the way the race was unfolding as the field banked into the turn.

“It was unbelievable,” Morey said. “I had no idea what happened. Then I saw her running off the wrong way down the backside. The outrider caught her pretty quick, so I went to the test barn to check her before going back to wait for the ambulance.”

Amazingly, after tumbling and tangling with her rider, Fair ’n Warmer lived to fight another day.

“She had two staples put in a small gash in her forehead,” Morey said. “And a couple minor scrapes on her front legs, nothing requiring stitches.”

Martinez, as has been reported, suffered six fractured ribs, a skull fracture and three broken vertebrae in his mid-back, one of them shattered so badly that the bone fragments severed the spinal cord. Paralysis to his lower limbs was readily apparent, but it took a few days before Martinez’ other injuries could be stabilized enough to consider him out of immediate danger.

“By Wednesday they were back to restricting his visitors,” Haire noted. “I took that as a good sign.”

Running second to Russell Baze in the local standings is a role played by many good riders through the years, but Martinez, a natural lightweight, had been on the kind of roll that indicate great futures.

“He’s a great kid, always smiling, and the kind of kid who on a busy morning would literally work from six to 10, getting on every horse he could,” Morey said. “Him and his agent, Dennis Patterson, were a good fit and really starting to catch on.

“Those first couple days they had to deal with draining blood and fluid from his lungs, and the head injury, but now his brain is working just fine,” Morey added. “He talks in Spanish to his Spanish-speaking friends and in English to his English-speaking friends. He even got a chuckle out of us all when he told us he had to get out of there. When he was told he couldn’t leave right then, he said, ‘Get my agent. He’ll get me out.’ ”

Among those who rushed to Martinez’ side was his first cousin, Alex Solis, who had been riding in Kentucky. One of the game’s premier riders, Solis himself fractured a vertebra, suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung in a crash at Del Mar in 2004. Surgery was required to stabilized his spine.

“I’ve known Michael since he was a kid,” said an emotionally exhausted Solis on Thursday morning. “Yesterday he was able to talk to me a little bit more. He said he wanted to get up, and for me to help him get to the bathroom. I told him he had to stay relaxed, but they still got to keep him tied down.”

As he spoke, Solis was on his way to a Bay Area airport to pick up Martinez’ parents, who had never traveled outside their native Panama. Accompanying them was Solis’ mother.

“When I told him his parents were coming, he said, ‘Really?’ and was happy, then sad,” Solis said. “And then kind of scared. He’s pretty alert, so I think he’s got an idea how bad he is hurt.”

Although the chapter about being a professional jockey has come to an end, the Michael Martinez story is far from over. Doctors are hoping that stem cell treatments can help heal the spinal cord to a certain extent. Friends and family have him surrounded with support. And very soon, in the next few days, he will be holding in his two good arms his first-born child.