Kelli Martinez remembers when she first met Armando Martinez. It happened over 30 years ago.
Kelli’s family had a horse running in Lincoln for trainer Larry Staroscik. Armando, jockey by trade, hung around with Kelli’s older sister at the time.
“My sister actually told me, ‘Hey, I met the guy I want you to marry someday,”’ Kelli said. “That’s basically how we met because I was always the shy one. She was the one who always kind of ran around.
“We just saw each other that day. We went out a couple of times and he said we were going to get married. I took that with a grain of salt, but we ended up together and it’s been 30 years.”
Thirty years later, Kelli finds herself right at the top of the trainer’s standings at Fonner Park. Through the first half of the 31-day racing meet, Kelli has 12 wins and is tied atop the standings with Isai Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, Armando is leading the jockey standing with 21 wins, three ahead of Chris Fackler.
A husband-wife team leading the standings is a rather unusual event at any track. Both Kelli and Armando will tell you that there’s no real secret to their success.
“You work hard in the mornings and for the trainers to ride their horses,” Armando said. “I’ve been trying to do the best I can and focus on what I’m doing over there. The horses have been running good for me and I hope it stays that way. I haven’t been doing anything different. I’ve just been doing the job like I’m supposed to. I’ve been pretty lucky.”
The Martinez’s have certainly upgraded their stock over the last few years. They lived just outside of Grand Island for years, but after daughter Victoria and then their youngest Damian graduated from high school, they moved their base of operations to Kentucky.
“A guy gets comfortable with doing OK, but you always want to get over that hump. I think that’s what we’ve done as a unit. The owners and the family decided it’s now or never and it’s really working out with us.”
Kelli said her and Armando wanted concentrate on the family when their kids were growing up.
“We wanted to be as much of a family as we can in this business,” she said. “As they got older and got to graduating, our family bought a farm in Kentucky and we’ve been going year around. It just kind of makes you go to the a different level to compete where ever you may be.”
Armando rides most of the horses for the pair, although occasionally they have two in the same race so he has to make a choice.
He also rides horses in the mornings, not just for Kelli but for other trainers as well.
Kelli is in charge of the training, although she said they kick things around and come up with a general consensus most of the time. Armando’s input after riding horses in the mornings is invaluable.
“You know your horses so much, when you get on them you can tell if the horse is happy or the horse is not happy,” Armando said. “Every horse I get on, when I get back to the barn the first thing she says to me is, ‘How is he?’ I tell her what my opinion is. Sometimes she likes it, sometimes she doesn’t like it. By the time we leave the barn, we come to an agreement that is OK and we work together.”
Damian, who graduated from high school in 2015, wanted to be a jockey like his dad when he was younger, but he grew out of that profession.
Now Damian is a jockey’s agent. He handles the booking for his dad as well as jockey’s Alberto Pusac and Dakota Wood.
The entire group has a word in the operation.
“I do the final say,” Kelli said. “But we work together. There’s Damian and Damian’s girlfriend Alexis. We work together and make a decision. Sometimes it’s not what everybody likes but we have to come to a decision.
“We usually know what’s right. We all work for the same goal. No matter how strong or bullheaded some of us get sometimes, we know what’s right and that’s what we end up going with.”
Armando certainly has a strong voice in it all, but he’ll take a backseat to his wife when it comes to the training part of it.
“She takes charge of the training,” Armando said. “She tells us what horses to take to the track in the mornings. I do the galloping. When I gallop I need to know how the horses feel. If they don’t feel good, if they’re sick or something.”
This spring has been tough for all the trainers. The adverse weather hasn’t allowed them to train the way they would like.
“All the trainers back there are in the same boat,” Kelli said. “You just can’t do things the way you want them done. Then if you have younger horses, maidens, that need to go to the gate, you just can’t get in a routine enough to get the job done the way it needs to be done.”
But the Martinez bunch seems to have survived better than most. That move to Kentucky after the kids graduated worked out well for them.
“We wanted to be as much of a family as we can in this business,” Kelli said. “A guy gets comfortable with doing OK, but you always want to get over that hump. I think that’s what we’ve done as a unit. The owners and the family decided it’s now or never and it’s really working out with us.”
The Martinez’ bunch is doing well right now, but Kelli said there are always ups and downs in this business.
“If you could take this good and spread it out for the entire year, and have good all the time, it would make it a lot easier,” Kelli said. “Because those hills that go up and down, sometimes those down ones are pretty rough.”