Amid all the shouts of congratulations, the eruptions of song, and the throng of family and friends that flooded the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle March 7 to celebrate King Guillermo’s upset score in the $351,500 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, owner Victor Martinez was quiet and reflective.
“There is nothing that comes close to this,” said Martinez, who played 16 years of Major League Baseball after immigrating to the United States from his native Venezuela. “This is something else. This is my family. What you saw today is all family. I thank God for this opportunity and for putting a great horse in my hands.”
Martinez, who founded a 2,400-acre cattle operation called Victoria’s Ranch at the end of his baseball career, now has what most Thoroughbred owners work a lifetime to find: a live shot at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
“This race was perfect,” said the colt’s trainer, Juan Carlos Avila. “Thirty years training horses, and I’ve never seen a horse run like that.”
Sent off at odds of 49.20-1, King Guillermo looked the unassuming type as he entered the gate for the Grade 2 Road to the Kentucky Derby test. Guided by Samy Camacho , the son of Uncle Mo was soon en route to proving his detractors wrong as he sprung from the break and ducked out before being quickly righted to settle in second behind Relentless Dancer and jockey Antonio Gallardo.
Never straying more than a length behind Relentless Dancer, King Guillermo helped press the pace through quarter-mile fractions of :23.89 and :48.16. Relentless Dancer was able to maintain his slim advantage through the backstretch, a half-length ahead of King Guillermo, as six furlongs went in 1:12.
Favored Sole Volante, who took the Feb. 8 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, broke slowly but managed to gain much-needed ground through the first six furlongs and into the upper stretch and moved into eighth as the field entered the turn for home.
Second choice Chance It, who shifted out during the break, was guided between foes but was caught up in the pack through the majority of the race. He was finally guided out by Paco Lopez to make a move for the lead near the top of the stretch but could not get closer than third and lost momentum in the lane.
Dueling with Relentless Dancer at the top of the stretch, King Guillermo took the lead and pulled away as his competition began to tire. Sole Volante seized his opportunity and made a run at the leader in the final strides, but there was no catching King Guillermo. With a solid 4 3/4 lengths between him and the rest of the field, the 3-year-old scored his first stakes win and stamped himself one to watch come the first Saturday in May.
“I’m so happy,” Camacho said. “I say thank you to God … to all the team … everybody that made this dream possible. I can’t say anything else. I’m so excited and happy.
“From the three-eighths pole, I thought, ‘I have a lot of horse.’ I worried a little bit about Chance It and Sole Volante if both of those horses came from the back, but I had a lot of confidence in my heart because he was doing really good in the mornings during training. It’s my first Tampa Bay Derby. I want to keep winning, working hard, and supporting my dreams. I hope we’re going to the Kentucky Derby.”
The final time for 1 1/16 miles was 1:42.63. Sole Volante rallied for second ahead of third-place finisher Texas Swing. Relentless Dancer was fourth, followed by Chance It.
King Guillermo returned $100.40, $38.20, and $17.80 on a $2 wager.
The Tampa Bay Derby awards Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the first four finishers. King Guillermo has 50 points but is not yet Triple Crown-nominated. His connections will have to invest $6,000 by March 30 to make that dream a reality. Sole Volante, who added 20 points to his total, is seventh with 30 points.
“We had a lot of confidence in him,” Martinez said. “His workouts have been great, and he didn’t do well at 5 1/2 furlongs in his first start, so we decided to put him on turf. But we still believed in him, and his dirt workouts were really amazing. We had nothing to lose, so we decided to give him one more shot on dirt and see what happens.”
Bred in Kentucky by Carhue Investments, Grouseridge Ltd., and Marengo Investments, King Guillermo is the sixth named foal out of the Dixieland Band mare Slow Sand. He was purchased by Martinez for $150,000 at the OBS Spring sale of 2-year-olds in training. He two wins and a third from four starts and earnings of $240,350.
With a trip beneath the Twin Spires a possibility, Martinez said King Guillermo was just the next blessing in a life that has already taught him dreams are possible.
“My dad died when I was 6, and I always wanted to have a horse named for my dad,” an emotional Martinez said. “I have my mom [Margot] here, and when I came to the United States, I got drafted by the [Cleveland] Indians. They gave me an $8,000 signing bonus. When I came to the states, there was a catcher there from Puerto Rico and they gave him $500,000. I called my mom and said, ‘I’m stuck here. This other guy, they gave him a lot of money.’ But my mom taught me dreams are for free. I came to this country to have a career, and when I retired, I still felt like I could play. I was sleeping for 16 years in the big leagues. Once I woke up, I found King Guillermo.”