05/26/2009 11:00PM

Unfamiliar spot for Martinez

Emerald Downs
Seth Martinez has had a tough 2009.

AUBURN, Wash. - Call it a funk, a rut, a nasty slump, the mother of all cold spells. Whatever the diagnosis, Seth Martinez is suffering through the worst stretch of his riding career. The sensation of Emerald Downs in the summer of 2008 is a now an 8 percent rider, buried deep in the jockey standings and looking for the spark that will get him going.

Turmoil in his personal life, an ongoing battle to make weight, some faulty riding mechanics, and a slightly bruised ego have contributed to his slump, Martinez said before the races last Saturday. But nothing is forever, and Martinez, 29, figures a turnaround is coming, though he's not exactly sure how.

"It's driving me crazy. In all honesty, it's tough," he said. "This game is all about ups and downs, anyway. One minute you're on top, and the next minute you're trying to pick up the pieces and figure out what's going on."

Horses seemingly haven't responded to Martinez the way they did last summer, when the New Mexico native rallied like Mine That Bird to win the riding title after spotting two-time defending champion Ricky Frazier a 28-win lead. Martinez missed the first 18 days of the meeting while riding in Arizona and then won 121 races in 73 days to finish four ahead of Frazier. Everything was perfectly aligned: He rode first-call for trainer Mike Chambers, who won with 33 percent of his starters, and teamed with respected agent Boone McCanna to get a leg up on some of the sharpest horses on the grounds. If Martinez was riding, the horse was live. This year, not so much.

"When you win a few races, you get into that groove and start listening to the horses," Martinez said. "But at times I've been trying too hard, maybe forcing horses to do things they don't want to do."

When he was on top, winning riding titles at Canterbury, Turf Paradise, and Emerald, it was easy to hit the hotbox to shed weight, Martinez said. He has sparred with the scale since 1995, when he rode his first winner at Arapahoe Park near Denver, just past his 16th birthday. But these days it takes extra willpower.

"The reducing part, it's tough when you're not doing well," he said. "It wears on you."

But no burden weighs on Martinez as much as his split with longtime girlfriend Neah Goodwin, the mother of his two children. The couple separated in February. Goodwin lives in Minnesota with Seth Jr., 6, and Casey, seven months. Martinez has not seen his children in four months and may not see them until the fall, when he will return to Minnesota to collect his things before heading off to Turf Paradise for the winter.

Martinez admits to being a flawed partner. He's a headstrong man in an all-consuming profession, the grandson of a Quarter Horse trainer and the son of a jockey. He regularly works 15-hour days, with little left to give his loved ones. But that doesn't mean he isn't hurting.

"She's a great mother. She's really good with the kids," he said of Goodwin. "It's traumatic. Personal issues kind of take your focus away, I guess, and trying to get it back is tough. It really is."

Will Martinez find his bearings this summer and return to his winning ways? A lot of horsemen are betting he will. Chambers remains firmly in his corner, though the talented trainer brought fewer horses to Emerald this summer. Up-and-coming trainer Blaine Wright is a friend and confidant. Respected horsemen Pat Mullens, Dan Kenney, Connie Bouslaugh, Tom Wenzel, and Vince Gibson have given him mounts in recent days. When Vancouver-based trainer Mel Snow needed a rider for 3-year-old filly sensation What R the Odds in Saturday's Federal Way Handicap, the call went out for Martinez.

"He's going to get rolling," McCanna said Saturday morning. "He's still going to win 80 or 90 races."

What R the Odds could have been the one to get Martinez going. But she tightened up in the post parade and bled during the race, fading to finish a well-beaten seventh as the 7-5 favorite. It was another discouraging result for a man who was riding high on the hog a year ago.

"This could be a learning experience for me," Martinez said wistfully. "I didn't handle everything as well as I should have when I was on top, and maybe now God is saying we're going to humble you a little bit."