Like many of his brethren in the jocks' room, Willie Martinez has spent much of his career seeking the opportunity to have an opportunity.
Two summers ago, when the veteran rider realized his chances for success on one of his favorite circuits were beginning to dwindle, Martinez made a decision that has yielded one of the most fortuitous breaks of his career.
In a handful of days, Martinez is slated to board a flight to California for his first Breeders' Cup mount in 10 years. The 38-year-old is scheduled to ride Nobel's Promise in the $2 million Juvenile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 7.
His skill in guiding Nobel's Promise to victory in the Grade I Dixiana Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 10 might have cemented Martinez's journey to Arcadia but, were it not for a bold decision made nearly two years ago, his shot at Breeders' Cup glory this year might never have materialized.
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Although one of the most respected figures on the Kentucky circuit — both for patience in the saddle and his easy-going nature — Martinez's business was on the decline after a 2007 season in which he had just 23 wins.
The nine-time leading rider at Turfway and former Keeneland Spring Meet champion went to Pennsylvania's Presque Isle Downs the last two springs and summers. It was there he picked up the mount on Noble's Promise when the colt shipped from Ellis Park for a start in the Fitz Dixon Jr. Memorial Juvenile on Sept. 26, a race they won by 31/4 lengths.
"You always want to make changes for the better and, in my heart and mind, it was just the right thing to do," Martinez said of the decision to head to Presque Isle. "I miss home, Kentucky, but you have to go where you can ride and have more opportunities.
"Here (in Kentucky) the lack of opportunities was getting tougher and tougher because you're always going to have the young riders coming up and all that. But you have to put your pride to the side and go out there and just let people know 'I'm still here, and all I need is the horse.' "
Since his first win in 1989, Martinez has racked up 2,835 through Oct. 26 with titles at five tracks. He is tied with Hall of Famer Pat Day for most Turfway stakes wins with 37.
But when it came to securing the truly elite mounts over the years, the native of Puerto Rico found that competing in one of the sport's toughest jockey colonies meant owners and trainers had a plethora of legendary talent to pick from — often at his expense.
"When Willie was riding in Kentucky, he was having to ride against a lot of top riders, and breaking through the glass ceiling was tough," said Ken McPeek, trainer of Nobel's Promise. "It was almost impossible until Pat Day retired (in 2005), and ... then he went through a stage where he hit a bit of a lull. He's had his ups and downs, but he's been successful in years past for me. And right now, you don't want to change up a winning combination."
Martinez has shown he knows how to seize the moment when prime talent does come his way.
In 2006, he celebrated his first Grade I triumph when he guided Brass Hat to victory in the $500,000 Donn Handicap that February.
Though Brass Hat was eventually disqualified from his runner-up finish in the $6 million Dubai World Cup that year because of a medication infraction, Martinez guided the millionaire gelding to six stakes wins before shifting to Presque Isle.
"After you lose a horse like Brass Hat, you always wonder when am I going to be able to find one like that," said Martinez, who has been based at Tampa Bay Downs the last couple winters. "Brass Hat was just one of a kind. He was great for me and great for my career."
While Martinez has had two previous Breeders' Cup mounts, finishing seventh aboard Dancing Gulch in the 1998 Distaff and ninth on Scratch Pad in the 1999 Juvenile Fillies, Nobel's Promise represents his best chance to celebrate on one of racing's grandest settings.
Owned by Chasing Dreams Racing, the bay son of Cuvee has won three of four career starts using a stalking style that worked to perfection in the 11⁄16-mile Breeders' Futurity, when he gave Martinez his first graded stakes win since 2006.
"From Day One, since I've been on his back, his mind is what really makes him stand out," Martinez said. "He's very smart, and he doesn't get too overexcited about things, and he's a quick learner.
"Obviously, the distance was a question mark last time out, and he answered that."
And after years of repeatedly proving himself, Martinez had a definitive answer about what a Breeders' Cup victory would mean for his career.
"As a rider, we always dream about a good mount in the Kentucky Derby or to get to the Breeders' Cup," he said. "Even if a horse is 50-1 or 5-2, you just want to get a mount and to participate. To have such a great opportunity not only to ride in the race, but to win it means everything."