Breeders’ Cup Connections: At 91 Years Young, Blue-Collar Trainer Dancing His Way Into The Winner’s Circle

It’s been a difficult year all around, but there are still a few bright spots out there in the world – you just have to know where to look.

This week, we found that feel-good story down in New Mexico. At the age of 91, trainer Rey Marquez saddled his first winner of 2020 at Zia Park on Dec. 3. It was his 13th starter of the year. 

It was “just” a $10,000 maiden claiming race on a Thursday, but truly it was more than that. It was a rare moment of joy bursting forth from this challenging year, both for Marquez himself and all those who know him.

“I don’t know how many 90-year-olds are still training,” Marquez admitted during a telephone interview, noting that he turns 92 on Dec. 22. “But me, I still danced three times a week ’til the place shut down due to COVID – I do a mean cha-cha, gal!”

The horse, Lincoln County Kid, won by a length, and Marquez danced his way into the winner’s circle with his trademark grin. It was a good return on investment; Marquez had purchased the 2-year-old gelding for $1,500 just six weeks prior. 

He’d taken a chance on Lincoln County Kid, sight unseen, to help out an old friend: a trainer forced to sell off his stock and leave the business. Marquez remembers telling his fellow horsemen that if things in New Mexico didn’t start looking up, and soon, “there’d be a lot of tack for sale.”

It isn’t just the pandemic that’s dealing raw edges to the state’s horse racing industry. Uncertainty about the future of racing at Sunland Park has sent some trainers and owners rushing for the border, and a recent lawsuit filed by the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association against the state’s commission alleges the latter has been improperly collecting over $8 million since 2004 to pay liability insurance for jockeys.  

“We have a really plum relationship with casinos – we get 20 percent of their net – but right now casinos are closed,” Marquez explained. “On Thursday when I won it was an $8,000 purse, so $4,800 goes to the winner. Last year when I won a maiden race my share was $16,000. 

“Everybody’s having a hard time here. I just keep hoping for a miracle.”

Compounding the issue is the fact that account wagering is not legal in New Mexico. With COVID restrictions firmly established at Zia Park, no fans are allowed and thus there are also no mutuels clerks; that meant Marquez didn’t have a bet down on Lincoln County Kid when the gelding paid $31.60 to win.

“It’s not the best place in the world to be at right now,” Marquez said simply. 

Still, New Mexico has been his home since he and his childhood sweetheart Josephine got married 69 years ago, and he doesn’t plan to leave now. There are too many happy memories tucked in around every little corner. 

He and Josephine were married for 35 years, and she passed away 34 years ago this month. 

Rey Marquez (Bernadette Barrios photo)

“We had a great marriage, and everybody loved her,” Marquez said, emotion causing his voice to catch. “That woman never met a stranger, and she loved the horses.”

Marquez still lives in Albuquerque, where he cut his teeth working for the local Health Department. He always enjoyed attending the races with Josephine and their friends on the weekends, and one afternoon on the way home from Ruidoso Downs, one friend suggested they buy a horse together. 

The idea was tempting, sure, but with two young children to support it just wasn’t financially feasible. 

A few weeks later, fate intervened.

“One morning, two blocks away from the office, a cabbie had a passenger who was in a real hurry trying to catch a flight,” Marquez remembered. “He T-boned me at a light, and I got a nice insurance payout. So I guess you could say I got into racing by accident, literally.”

It took three horses before Marquez saw his silks head out to the track in the afternoon – his first two suffered injuries before they made it to the races.

“It was just bad luck at first,” said Marquez. “I asked my wife, ‘Do you think somebody’s trying to tell us to stay out of this business?’ And she said, ‘Hell no, go get us another one!’”

At first, Marquez hired an experienced trainer to condition his horses, then spent weekends on the backstretch helping out and learning as much as he could. Eventually Marquez got his trainer’s license, and began operating a “working man’s stable.”

Ruben Garcia, a friend who owned several Mexican restaurants in the city, was the first to offer Marquez a chance to begin training full time. Marquez took him up on the opportunity after retiring from the health department at age 62.

It was a family operation from the start. Marquez’ wife was his biggest fan, and their daughter Threse ran the shed row for 17 years until her eldest child was school-aged.

He had a few nice runners over the years, led by 1984 Santa Fe Futurity winner Dan’s Diablo. More recently, Marquez said the stakes-placed Strike A Spider was one of his favorites.

“This sport has been good to me,” Marquez said. “I wouldn’t say I’m prudent, but I got my first nickel in it, and I haven’t lost it yet.”

Marquez has saddled 266 winners from 3,488 starters during his career, according to Equibase. He’s had a winner nearly every year since 1976, and said he never spent more than $4,000 on a horse. 

For Marquez, it’s the thrill of watching his horses thundering down the stretch in front that keeps him rising early every morning to see to the needs of his small stable. The racing game also gives him a chance to stay close to the memory of his beloved late wife. 

“Most of my friends have passed on now,” Marquez said thoughtfully, then deflected that grim reality with humor via a story about his doctor.  

“I eat mostly fried chicken, fried chicken skin, pork … about two to three years ago my regular doctor retired, and the new doctor started talking to me and asked me what I ate. She was surprised, she said, ‘There’s the rule and there’s the exception, and you’re the exception!’ I guess maybe she’s right.”

 

The post Breeders’ Cup Connections: At 91 Years Young, Blue-Collar Trainer Dancing His Way Into The Winner’s Circle appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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