Years ago, on a recreational visit to Saratoga, Francis Martin was standing by the rail and gazing at the clubhouse box-seat area, populated by the owners of America's elite racing stables. Martin turned to his brother Peter and asked, "Do you think we'll ever be sitting up there?"
This was an implausible thought, for the usual habitat of the Martins was far removed from the world of the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts. They had spent many years going to work at dawn in the wholesale district of Boston, putting on their white coats and hats, taking their boning knives and cutting slabs of beef that passed by on a conveyor belt.
So nobody could quarrel with Francis Martin when he says, "This is a rags-to-riches story." One day last summer the brothers found themselves the centers of attention in that storied Saratoga clubhouse after a colt they owned had won the famed Hopeful Stakes. And on Saturday they will be watching from their box seats at Hialeah as that colt, Timely Writer, goes to the post as the morning-line favorite for the $250,000 Flamingo Stakes.
For the last 28 years the Martins have operated a wholesale-meat business and, Francis said, "We work hard at it. We've built the company up from nothing into a $7 million-a-year business. I get to work at 5 in the morning and work 70 hours a week. We have no time for golf, no outside interests. But every year we put some money aside to buy one or two horses."
Martin had, in fact, bought his first horse when he was a youngster--a $350 cripple who campaigned at the New England fairs. But now, he says, "Every year I buy a yearling. I know I'm breaking every rule in the book, but I believe in patience."
His friend Tony Everhard, who operates a farm in Florida, picks out the yearlings and raises them, then sends them to trainer Dom Imprescia in New England.
Everhard made a typical purchase for the Martins when he went to a yearling sale two summers ago and spent $13,500 for a good-looking, but ill-bred, colt. The yearling's sire, Staff Writer, never had raced and had compiled such a dismal record at stud in Florida that he was sold for almost nothing and exiled to Idaho. Until Timely Writer, none of his progeny had shown any ability.
But Timely Writer displayed such precocity on Everhard's farm that Martin knew he had a potential star; even so, he decided to take a gamble. He entered the colt in a $30,000 maiden claiming race at Monmouth Park, presumably to cash a bet.
Having committed himself to this course of action, he proceeded to worry himself sick that the horse would be claimed.
Timely Writer won his racing debut by eight lengths, paid $11.80 and didn't get claimed. He never would see a claiming race again.
He ran away with the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, trouncing the previously unbeaten speedster Out of Hock. In the fall at Belmont Park, he ran away with the Champagne Stakes, the definitive championship race for 2-year-olds, trouncing the previously unbeaten filly Before Dawn. And, at the end of the year, he was denied the championship of his generation, losing the Eclipse Award to Deputy Minister, whom he had beaten by eight lengths in their lone meeting.
"There was a little politicking involved," Martin said. And there was more than a little sentiment that if Timely Writer were owned by any of the elitists in the Saratoga box seats he would have been a shoo-in for the title.
But no matter. Martin knows that this is the year that counts, and Timely Writer's strong finishes in his 3-year-old races suggest that he will be well-suited by the distances of the classic races.
He will begin to demonstrate whether this thesis is correct in the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo Saturday. The pedigree experts still have their doubts about the colt, but if a couple of meat-cutters from Boston can make it to the Saratoga clubhouse, then a son of Staff Writer conceivably can get to the winner's circle at Hialeah and Churchill Downs.