By HAL LUNDGREN, FOR THE CHRONICLE
Updated 02:31 a.m., Thursday, December 22, 2011
The alarm buzzes shortly after 4 a.m. An hour later, Frank "Pancho" Martin is off to the track. That’s his seven-day schedule.
"He doesn’t play golf or watch TV," said his wife, Charlene. "Training horses is his life. It has always been that way."
Frank Martin is no 20-something upstart intent on launching a career. He’s doing what he thinks the job demands. The job he started eight decades ago.
At 86, Martin is thoroughbred racing’s oldest active trainer.
Make that very active.
"I train 18 horses," he said from his New York home. "I have a full staff. Assistant trainers. Hot walkers. A day watchman. A night watchman. … I’ve got lots to do."
Add a chauffeur to his helper list.
The Martins live by New York’s Belmont Park. When the city’s other track (Aqueduct) operates, Martin must rely on a driver.
Born in Cuba, Martin was a stable helper in his childhood. He walked horses after workouts and races to cool them. At 16 in 1941, he qualified as a trainer. In 1953, his quest to condition better horses and compete for larger purses lured him to the United States.
His financial plan worked well. In 1974, he topped U.S. trainers in earnings. Counting estimated winnings in Cuba, Martin’s horses have accumulated more than $50 million in purses.
He led New York trainers in wins from 1973 through 1982.
Sham top horse?
He won’t speculate on his best horse. Asked if his No. 1 was Sham, he replied, "Might have been." Nothing more. He wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of one of his other prominent horses.
The Hall-of-Fame trainer also handled Manassa Mauler and Autobiography. His Outstandingly was a Breeders’ Cup champion.
The movie Secretariat misrepresented Martin as an arrogant, sharp-tongued rival of Secretar-iat owner Penny Chenery Tweedy and its trainer, Lucien Laurin. Unlike the true Martin, the screen Martin repeatedly boasted that his horse would devour Secretariat in the 1973 Triple Crown races.
Movie ‘a bunch of lies’
"No one (from the film crew) ever contacted us," Charlene Martin said. "We didn’t even know the movie had come out. Friends started phoning, asking if we’d seen it. They weren’t very happy. … When we eventually did go to see it, we were very disappointed. They presented Frank as someone that he never is. He’s strong, but not like they made him look.
"He didn’t talk to Mrs. Tweedy the way that actor talked to her in the movie. My husband would never speak to a woman disrespectfully."
Frank Martin offered a shorter film review.
"Lies," he said. "A bunch of lies."
In the real Frank Martin, there’s truth.
Could he still be training at 90, even 100?
"Maybe," he said. "Right now, I’ve got a lot to do. My horses keep me busy."