He was a throwback to the glory days of thoroughbred racing, a brilliant horseman with an explosive temper, a colorful vocabulary and a generous spirit.
Frank "Pancho" Martin, 86, died Wednesday night at his Garden City home after a long illness. He trained 3,241 winners in a Hall of Fame career that began in 1951 after he left Cuba for New York. He began as a hot walker in 1949 at Oriental Park in his native Havana. He figured his career choices were the racetrack or baseball -- "and I was a lousy ballplayer.''
He became a terrific fix-it guy, with a knack for spotting and fixing horses' physical problems. He turned cheap, sore animals into stakes winners and produced two national champions -- Autobiography (older horse, 1972) and Outstandingly (2-year-old filly, 1984). From 1973-82 Martin was King of New York, leading the circuit in wins every year. Two sons, Greg Martin and the late Jose Martin, were trainers, as is grandson Carlos Martin.
Merrick native Gary Contessa was Martin's assistant from 1980-84, and he learned well from the master. Contessa, NYRA's No. 1 trainer from 2006-09, remembered Martin Friday morning.
"What a great guy,'' Contessa said. "I have so many fond memories of him. He had a temper and was a wild and crazy guy, but he had a heart of gold. Every Thanksgiving he'd give out 300 frozen turkeys on the backstretch, and at Christmas everybody got a present.''
Along with his sentimental side, the cigar-chomping Martin was a relentless taskmaster. "He'd never give you a day off, but he'd always take care of you,'' Contessa said. "He was old school, and it was do or die working for him. He didn't put his arm around you if you did something wrong. He was like a really tough father.''
Martin's intuition about horses amazed Contessa. "He could just look at one walking past and say, 'There's something wrong with his right shoulder,' and he'd be right.''
Martin's best and favorite horse was Sham, who had the misfortune of being a 3-year-old in 1973. Sham ran second to the immortal Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before cracking in a speed duel and finishing last in Big Red's 31-length runaway in the Belmont Stakes.
Unfortunately, most people were introduced to Martin by the Disney movie "Secretariat,'' which portrayed Pancho as a vulgar, mean-spirited heavy, a male version of Cruella De Vil.
"That movie really made him angry,'' Contessa said. "He was so ticked off. It didn't show the real Frank Martin. He was difficult to get along with, but he had a good heart. If I'd been an adviser on the movie, they would have done a better job of getting him right.''
Bill Nack covered the 1973 Triple Crown for Newsday. Nack was an adviser on the film, which was based on his excellent biography of Secretariat, and he agrees with Contessa. "I had nothing to do with making Pancho look like that, and I didn't like it, either,'' Nack said Friday by telephone. "That's not the way Pancho was, and I told that.''
A scene showed Martin being rude to Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery. Not so, Nack said. "I introduced them before the Preakness, and Pancho couldn't have been more polite,'' Nack said. "He was very kind to her. She petted Sham and said, 'He's a nice horse.' Penny told Pancho, 'Good luck to you,' and Pancho said, 'Good luck to you, too.'
"Pancho was very cordial to me throughout the Triple Crown. Making him look like an aggressive person was wrong, but that's what movies do.''
In 1974, Martin's 156 victories set a NYRA record that stood until Contessa had 159 in 2007. "I really didn't want to break the record,'' Contessa said, "because I had so much respect for the man. Losing him is like the end of an era. We won't see anybody like him again.''
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