Don't call it a midlife crisis. But when jockey Martin Ramirez turned 40 last October, he decided to make a big change in his life come spring.
Instead of continuing as a big fish in the little pond at the Fort Erie Race Track (where he had been a top rider for 10 years), Ramirez decided to take a big swing at the major league of Canadian thoroughbred racing and become a full-time jockey at Woodbine.
The new season's only two days old, but so far things aren't going so well for him. Of the eight long shots he rode on Woodbine's opening weekend, Ramirez managed only one in-the-money finish. On Saturday his mounts finished sixth three times. On Sunday, he had a third, a fourth, a sixth and two eighths.
But Ramirez said he's not discouraged and is committed to sticking with his Woodbine plan, even if his opening-weekend struggles continue.
"I know it's going to take some time. It's not going to be easy. But I've got a good agent (Allen Raymond) and I feel confident. . . . You know, horses make riders. I just have to try to keep working and try to get a break," he said Sunday.
"I've been thinking about giving Woodbine a try for the last few years," Ramirez said. "(Last fall) I told my wife, 'If I don't give Woodbine a try right now I won't ever give it a try.'
"My wife (former Fort Erie jockey Maree Richards) is very supportive. She told me to take my shot," he said.
"I figure I won't need to be in as many races to try to maintain the same income level," Ramirez said. "Plus, I might have a chance to ride a nice horse. A horse here can make a half a million dollars a year."
Ramirez first arrived at Woodbine from his native Mexico in April 1990. After struggling in Toronto, he dropped down to Fort Erie in 1994 and his career took a sharp upward turn. "I was there 10 years and I was first, second or third (in the jockey standings) eight times," Ramirez said. "In the two years I was injured, I was leading rider when I got hurt."
Ramirez finished second to Neil Poznansky last year after winning the championship in 2003 and 2002. He was No. 1 in 1999, second to Cory Clark in 2000 and was forced to sit out out the second half of 2001 with a broken arm.
The official Equibase Co. statistics say that since arriving in Canada, Ramirez has ridden in 6,960 races and booted home 999 winners. The Woodbine publicity department has prepared a large sign that says "Congratulations on 1,000 career victories" to present Ramirez on his next visit to the winner's circle.
This ceremony may come as a surprise to Fort Erie regulars who recall that on June 2, 2001, Ramirez was honored at the border oval for his 1,000th win aboard a horse named Irie Blue. Apparently, that number included more than 300 races in Mexico, which are not included in North American racing's official records.
"I know for a fact that I'm close to 1,400 (wins), but that's counting the Mexican races," said Ramirez, who rode in tracks in his hometown of Tijuana and in Mexico City before coming north.
Ramirez said he's not putting Fort Erie behind him completely. Not at all. He plans to still accept mounts at the Fort on Woodbine's dark days.
"I'm going to be there (Fort Erie) Mondays and Tuesdays. I still live there. I'm going to ride seven days. If I can ride seven days a week, it won't bother me," he said.
Corey Fraser, Canada's top apprentice jockey last year, jumped off to an early lead in the standings by riding three winners -- two Saturday and one Sunday. Patrick Husbands, Jim McAleney and Dino Luciani, each with single winners on Sunday, have two each.
Nashinda, a 4-year-old filly returning from an injury-induced layoff, made easy work of Sunday's featured Whimsical Stakes, a $184,100 dash for females.
Breaking sharply under David Clark, she led every step, won by 1 3/4 lengths and paid $4.90 in her first start since last July.
Ramirez finished fourth in the race, 2 3/4 lengths back, aboard Spanish Decree, a 26-1 shot trained by Frank Huarte.