04/15/2015 1:20PM

When it's time for a Baffert star to work, Garcia punches in

Barbara D. Livingston
Martin Garcia has ridden and works both Dortmund (above) and American Pharoah.

Jockey Martin Garcia is in the unique position of having ridden both American Pharoah and Dortmund, so he, more than anyone, can compare and contrast the top two choices for this year’s Kentucky Derby on May 2.

Garcia has ridden Dortmund to victory in all six of his starts. He rode American Pharoah in his first race, a loss, then was committed to another runner for the Del Mar Futurity before trainer Bob Baffert decided to run American Pharoah, too. Victor Espinoza was the beneficiary.

But Garcia is on both horses for their workouts, and his skill in the mornings has been instrumental in the development of both American Pharoah and Dortmund. With American Pharoah, Garcia was in sync with Baffert in terms of how much to ask of the colt in his first works back from an injury. With Dortmund, Garcia helped the large, headstrong colt become far more relaxed in the mornings. Dortmund practically ran off with Garcia in his first race. Now, he lopes along on the lead, awaiting challengers.

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“He can play around a bit, but when someone comes to him or I ask him to go, he’s push-button. He takes off,” Garcia said after winning the Santa Anita Derby on Dortmund.

Garcia said Dortmund is “not as impressive” as American Pharoah in the mornings.

“He just gallops along, isn’t aggressive about it,” he said.

Garcia said of American Pharoah: “Whenever you want to go, however far you want to go, he drags you there.”

“They’re different that way,” he said. “But they’re both very good horses.”

Garcia is an integral part of Baffert’s operation. Baffert trusts Garcia on more good horses in more key workouts than anyone else. And it pays off in the afternoons, for Garcia has won the Preakness on Lookin At Lucky and Breeders’ Cup races on Bayern, New Year’s Day, and Secret Circle.

“That’s the way he got the job with me,” Baffert said. “Usually, a lot of top jockeys aren’t good work riders. He’s got a good set of hands, really soft. Horses like him. They run for him. If a horse is a handful, he gets along with them. He’s got a lot of horseman in him. He really likes horses. He loves animals.

“He understands horses. He’s conscientious. If he doesn’t like the way a horse is warming up, he’ll tell me. I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Garcia is outfitted with a wireless radio for workouts. Baffert will give Garcia a few instructions before a workout – where to start, how far to go, whether to be inside or outside a workmate – but once the drill starts, Baffert largely stays out of the way. He might say “perfect” or “just like that” after an ideal opening furlong; “pick it up” if the opening fraction is a bit too slow; and might call an audible and have Garcia gallop a horse out farther than first discussed if he feels it necessary. But the communication is infrequent because Garcia seems to be in sync with Baffert’s wishes.

“He knows my mind-set,” Baffert said. “If we’re getting a horse ready off a layoff, he knows if we’re in a holding pattern. He’s got it under control. I might have to remind him to be careful with Pharoah because he’s so deceptively fast, or with Dortmund because he’s got such a deceptively long stride. But he knows. And when he rides my horses in the afternoon, I don’t need to say too much to him because he knows the horses really well.”

Baffert relies on Garcia’s input as to how a horse worked. He’ll get an honest assessment, especially in regard to whether Garcia thinks a horse will be able to stretch out. Garcia often gets on the radio to Baffert as soon as a horse has been pulled to a stop after a work.

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“Patron” – Spanish for “boss” – Garcia will begin, “he’s ready.” After American Pharoah’s final work before the Arkansas Derby, Garcia animatedly reported, “I was just galloping!”

“I can tell when he’s excited,” Baffert said. “Short? Long? He knows. When he says, ‘This horse can really run,’ he knows. He’s been on so many good ones the last few years.

“He helps me with my training. I’m constantly asking him what he thinks. He’s a very important part of the barn.”

The association with Baffert affords great opportunity with one of the biggest stables in the country but can restrict Garcia from getting more work because trainers often figure he’s tied up with Baffert. At the current Santa Anita meeting, Garcia ranks fifth in wins with 30 and third in purse earnings behind Rafael Bejarano and Tyler Baze, but he’s had about half as many mounts (154) as Bejarano (305) and Baze (336).

It’s definitely quality over quantity, but the payoff, for both Garcia and Baffert, has been well worth it.