By J.N. Campbell

The Return of Victor Martinez’s King Guillermo

By J.N. Campbell
Samy Camacho rides Victor Martinez's 49-1 shot King Guillermo to victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) back in early March. He runs again on Saturday in the Cigar Mile (G1).
Samy Camacho rides Victor Martinez's 49-1 shot King Guillermo to victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) back in early March. He runs again on Saturday in the Cigar Mile (G1).

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It is Tuesday the first day of December, and Victor Martinez points the nose of his vehicle home after a productive day at the office. It is not a high-rise skyscraper in Orlando with corners reserved for executives, or some complex equipped with coffee baristas serving patrons mochaccinos at the center. Rather, it is his sprawling wide-open 2,500-acre ranch near Okeechobee, Florida that he, his wife Margret, and their 3 children call Victoria’s Ranch.

This is Martinez’s pastoral labor of love, and he has spent his time crafting, honing, and learning how to become a cattle rancher. In short, it takes effort and patience. Attributes that, funny enough, are necessary if you want to own racehorses. You might have heard, Martinez does that too.

When I spoke to him by phone you could hear that youthful exuberance and that infectious personality spilling out through the receiver. We were privileged to witness it both on and off the field during the some 16 years he played Major League Baseball for the Indians, the Red Sox, and finally before his retirement in 2018, the Tigers. Martinez is not only a joy to carry on a conversation with, but you can immediately tell he is a planner and strategic in everything he does. He had a dream back when he roamed those diamonds, which included Victoria’s Ranch, to run a Thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby.

In 2020, he almost pulled it off. “If you don’t have dreams,” he told me once, “then what else is there.”

Martinez is the proud owner of the 3-year-old colt out of Uncle Mo called King Guillermo. That name comes from his father, who is never far from the former ballplayer’s mind. He purchased this racehorse in 2019, and found a fabulous trainer in Juan Carlos Avila, a man who hails from the same country as Martinez - Venezuela.

As the story goes, the two debated where and what surface King Guillermo should run on. Gulfstream Park got the nod, since Avila is based there and Martinez lives in-state. The latter convinced the conditioner that dirt would be best, and in September 2019, he broke his maiden, finishing a distant 6th. Avila looked like his dog just died, but Martinez could have cared less. He was captivated by seeing those black and yellow silks circumvent the track. It was like winning the Derby.

Next, Avila sold him on the idea that Guillermo would like turf based on his pedigree. Two GP contests followed, a 1st place in MSW score, and a nice 3rd in the Pulpit Stakes (Black Type) to Pat Biancone’s talented Sole Volante. Flashing forward to the upcoming 3-yr-old campaign, King Guillermo rested up over the winter break. Martinez-Avila once again held another summit over where their charge should appear next. Martinez still had those aspirations to race in Louisville when early May rolled around, and Avila finally relented with the answer, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).

For the first time, King Guillermo got a new jockey who would help to form a racing triumvirate - Samy Camacho. He was an upstart rider, also from Venezuela, who had solid experience but was always behind the leading rider at Tampa Bay Downs, Antonio Gallardo. It would be the chance of a lifetime for all 3 men. As you may have heard, King Guillermo did not disappoint at 49-1 winning this G2 over the favorite who was 2-1, Sole Volante. King Guillermo earned those valuable Derby points. 

Then the coronavirus flipped all the scripts, forcing the connections to re-deploy. Holding onto those dreams of running at Churchill, Team Guillermo sent their colt to Oaklawn for the split Arkansas Derby. A respectable 2nd followed, which made Avila think that it was time to send King Guillermo to train for the biggest race of his life, the rescheduled September 5th Kentucky Derby. He did magnificently over the summer. When I caught up with Martinez and his family mid-week in Louisville, everything was progressing as planned, and the excitement was reaching a crescendo. Then disaster hit, as Avila noticed that their runner had a temperature. That fever forced him to scratch. And just like that, Derby dreams were dashed.

This week, when I asked Martinez about the emotion that he was feeling at the time, you could tell it was a mix of frankness and contrition. “Everybody in horse racing,” he said, “knows how devastating and heartbreaking it can be.” He went on to say, “I know in my heart that we made the right decision for the horse, and it was what he deserved.” That makes good sense, despite the crushing knowledge that ensued.

Martinez coped by falling back on his experiences as a professional athlete. His philosophy doesn’t allow him to dwell on the past, as there is always another at-bat to be had. He is a futurist, through and through. I was curious how he thought King Guillermo preparations were going over the course of October and into November. “You know, he looks great, Juan Carlos thinks that his works look sharp, and we have been patient with him, making sure he is ready to go,” Martinez admitted.

In other words, Team Guillermo has him cranked. Some gate schooling proved profitable at Gulfstream, yielding a bullet 4f work on November 20 to the tune of .46 and change. Martinez was excited to see that number, and it made Avila even more confident that the colt could enter a competition.

At first, the Discovery Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct seemed logical, but Avila thought that the distance of 1 1/8th right off the bench might be a question. Instead, this Saturday’s $250k Cigar Mile (G1) seemed a good fit being a one-turn affair on the dirt. The owner put his prize runner on a flight to Belmont last Saturday, so he can acclimate to the conditions in New York. They will be very different than Florida.

Another switch will be the G1 company in the Cigar Mile. King Guillermo faces older horses for the first time, including runners like Kelly Breen’s Firenze Fire, Greg Sacco’s Mind Control, Jack Sisterson’s True Timber, and possibly, Shug McGaughey’s Performer. Despite these odds, King Guillermo and his connections never back down from a chance to compete. We should know their capabilities to astound.

Always present is a nexus where the pride in entering and the patience that it takes if that cannot happen, merges. As Martinez reminds us, “Honestly, I am just happy to see him run, I do not care where it is, as long as he gets to.” That is a statement bound with gratitude and a competitive spirit.

Victor Martinez lives both. That is why it will be interesting to see the return of the King - Guillermo.

Are you new to Bet on King Guillermo in his return to action at Aqueduct this weekend at Aqueduct for the Grade I Cigar Mile?

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