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Injured jockey Michael Martinez intends for his life to be a long ride, despite paralysis

T.J. SIMERS

Paralyzed from the waist down in a racing mishap four months ago, Martinez says he still considers himself lucky. One big reason: The birth of his daughter, Merari, just days after his accident.

January 22, 2011|T.J. Simers
(Vassar Photography )

From San Pablo, Calif. — You don't want to read it; I don't want to write it.

It is horse racing, and already some folks are moving on to Page 3. If not the byline, the photo and headline might've been enough.

It's a story about a jockey, but one unfamiliar to most in Southern California, to make it even less enticing. One who is living in San Pablo, wherever that is.

He's a cousin of jockey Alex Solis, and he rode at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. So there's that. But he's here on a working visa from Panama and doesn't speak much English.

As athletic accomplishments go, he was really just getting started. His greatest claim to date, based on mounting evidence, is that everyone just loves this kid.

Being known as a good kid usually gets you no mention, and certainly not in this space. But what the heck — how often does one get the chance to visit San Pablo?

Located 14 miles outside of Oakland, San Pablo is Michael Martinez's home. Never heard of Martinez until a few days ago.

When I arrive he's just sitting there, as if he has any other choice. He's 24, one Sunday falling off a horse, and unless he experiences divine intervention or a scientific miracle, he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair — paralyzed from the waist down.

When they talk about horse racing being a dying sport, this is not what they mean.

But this is no longer about horse racing. It has more to do with the human spirit and how it might withstand a lifelong test. Imagine yourself at 24, or picture one of your own, and what would you say if delivered such a sentence?

"I'm lucky," Martinez says, the last words anyone might expect. "I've had the chance to see my daughter start to grow."

He wasn't breathing when they got to him at Golden Gate Fields on Sept. 12. He was given one chance out of nine to survive, his spinal cord severed, his brain bleeding. They had to call Solis for permission to operate.

Eleven hours of surgery and nine days later, still in a daze with his brain on the mend, his 23-year-old fiancee Charlotte Garcia gave birth to their daughter, Merari.

As coincidences go, the final win he ever records as a jockey comes three races before he's injured aboard a horse named Stormin Proud Papa. And he sure is.

Right now he's holding her in his arms, the human spirit doing just fine. The papa proud to say he changes diapers, while admitting he first had them on backward.

It's already been a big day when we get together, Martinez cooking his own breakfast. The therapy goal is to make him 100% self-sufficient.

His answer in a soft voice to his therapists is almost always the same, "OK. No problem." As his agent, Dennis Patterson, says, everyone hears the same thing. "It's like he wants to make everyone else feel good."

Martinez says he's not mad at anyone for what has happened to him, including God. "I thought I was a good person so I don't know why this happened to me. But God must have something else in mind for me."

His fiancee, whose father is jockey Julio Garcia, says he does get upset. "Like any other man," Charlotte says, "when we go shopping." Everyone laughs, and it's nice to hear.

Martinez rubs a hand through Merari's hair. There's a bunch of it and she's gorgeous. "The day she was born," he says, "I was reborn."

He has no idea when he first sees his baby that he will never walk again. No one tells him. He says to his agent someone has switched his legs; they are not his. Later he recognizes an old scar and realizes they are his own, but they will not move.

"I believe in miracles," he says.

He still gets up as early as he did when riding. He still thinks of himself as a jockey. He was on his way up, No. 13 in the nation in wins, but his last victory was a successful wheelie in his chair.

"It's hard for everyone," Charlotte says, "but we're young and we just need to move on."

There is a family feel to horse racing when one of its own gets hurt. The line to help is a long one. A track official says there is a job for him when he's ready to return.

A horse owner in L.A. has never met him. But she writes a $10,000 check to buy out Craig's restaurant in West Hollywood to host a fundraiser for the young family on Jan. 31. The public is invited — RSVP to (310) 828-9798.

Judy Carmel does so because she is Morrie Hazan's daughter, Morrie doing things like buying free spaghetti dinners for World War II GIs. "Dad left his money to us to help others," Carmel says. "I wish I could do more."

Martinez's agent is unemployed because his client cannot ride. But he's been with the kid since they hauled him off on a stretcher.

"He's like a son," Patterson says, "and just because he can't ride anymore changes nothing."

Dr. David Seftel, the track physician, won't quit. He has found promising treatment in Portugal, using stem cells from a patient's own nose.

"There are individuals regaining 85% of their previous capabilities," he says. "We'd love to have him walk again, but getting his bladder and bowel control back is worth everything. Most paraplegics die because of ravenous infections."

Seftel calls it a "window of opportunity to rescue him," treatment needing to start soon. But Martinez needs his immigration status modified, the bureaucratic process just beginning.

The treatment will probably cost $100,000. How much would you pay to maybe reduce a lifetime sentence in a wheelchair?

"No one knows what's going to happen with these young people," his agent says. "But I know this, I'm pulling for them."

Now that's a story worth following.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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