The first time Martin Pedroza saw Fairplex Park, it was in the early 1980s, when he was a young jockey not long removed from his native Panama. "Geez," Pedroza said. "What is this?"
Fairplex was a half-mile oval then, a furlong shorter in circumference than it is now. Years later, Pedroza looks at the tight turns in Pomona and smacks his lips. For more than a decade, it has rained wins for Pedroza at the fair.
Not just rain, but a deluge. In winning or sharing 11 Fairplex riding titles, including 10 outright championships (every year since 1999), Pedroza has won a record 561 races. David Flores, who dominated the jockey standings at the fair in the early 1990s, is second in career Fairplex wins with 327. When Martin Pedroza was named this year as the newest member of the Fairplex Park Hall of Fame, there were no suggestions that anyone stuffed the ballot box.
Pedroza, who turned 44 on July 20, has won more than 3,000 races (No. 3,000 came on opening day in Pomona last year, when he went on to win six more races), and 18 per cent of them have come at Fairplex, despite its abbreviated racing schedule.
A talkative guy with a good sense of humor, Pedroza turns circumspect when asked what's behind his holding Fairplex in his hip pocket since Pete Wilson was governor. Pedroza has plans to keep winning races by the bushel at the fair for a very long time.
"I'm sorry," he once said. "But I better not give away any of my secrets. Maybe I'm superstitious, but I don't want to be giving other riders more of a chance. What you basically have to do is ride the best horses and hope for the best."
Under mild prodding, however, Pedroza shared one of the key elements to his success at Fairplex.
"It helps when you know which jockeys are good at riding the turns," he said. "You follow those riders as much as you can, because they're more likely to have control of their horses and not get in your way."
For a number of years, the agent who has helped Pedroza pick out his mounts has been Richie Silverstein. They were committed to an especially large group of live horses going into the 2004 season at Fairplex.
Pedroza had won 31 races, and another title, the year before.
"I think we can win 40 races this time," Silverstein said.
But then, as the meet drew closer, Silverstein changed his estimate.
"You know," he said, "Tyler (Baze) and (Ryan) Fogelsonger aren't going to be riding. I think we can set 50 as the goal."
"Fogelsonger who?" Pedroza said, laughing.
They won 51, breaking the record of 48 that Flores had set in 1991.
"That was a lot of wins for just 17 days," Pedroza said. "When I got close to the record, I really wanted to get it, because you never know if you'll ever get that chance again."
Before Pedroza, Panama exported Braulio Baeza, Manny Ycaza, Laffit Pincay, Jacinto Vasquez and Jorge Velasquez to the U.S., and all of them were voted into the Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. They all came stateside out of hope; with Pedroza, it was sheer desperation. He had graduated from Panama's renowned jockey school, but then, while still a teenager, he won only three races in six months. His U.S. first winner came at Santa Anita in 1982, four months shy of his 17th birthday.
Of the five Panamanian Hall of Famers, only Pincay ever won seven races in the same day. At Fairplex last year, en route to a meet-high total of 42 wins, Pedroza won 17 races, or 40 per cent of his total, in a 72-hour period. On opening day, he won seven, the next day he added three and the day after that he fired another seven-bagger. The only other jockey with a comparable performance in the same year has been Travis Dunkelberger, who had an eight-win and a seven-win day at tracks in Maryland and West Virginia in 2000.
But as Martin Pedroza might say, Dunkelberger who?
By Bill Christine