Thoroughbred trainer and owner Kelli Martinez can't say exactly if owning a horse was always the dream for mom and dad. She just remembers that one day Lloyd Hans, a railroad worker, had put together enough money to purchase a broodmare, or a female breeding horse, for the family's acreage by Shelby.
Instantly, Martinez was hooked. Almost four decades later, hers is a name that's perhaps the most recognizable every year during the Ag Park horse racing season.
Since 1982 she's been involved in the racing meet at Columbus in almost every form and fashion. Only once has she missed coming back to her roots.
"It's home. Even though there's not enough money here anymore, and we're doing well in Iowa, and we've also got a farm in Kentucky, Nebraska is home," she said Friday afternoon in a barn east of the Ag Park track. "I just really hope things come together that we can get racing going here in the state again."
Martinez and her husband, Armando, another name Columbus race fans will recognize, run all 12 months out of the year. Right now, she primarily stables her horses at Prairie Meadows near Des Moines, Iowa.
Prairie Meadows started a split season of quarter horses and thoroughbreds on Mondays and Tuesdays, allowing Martinez to keep the majority of her stable there while hauling a few entries to Columbus.
She'll run at Ag Park on the weekend then hurry back to Iowa for races. When that season is over, she'll return to Kentucky where there are seven tracks within a five-hour drive of her and Armando's home in Versailles.
The two met at State Fair Park in Lincoln in 1987 when Kelli was 16 and Armando 19.
"We met, and that was it," Kelli said. "We've been together ever since."
Kelli's love was instant and complete, both with Armando and the track. Once dad brought Flying Gazelle to the farm and the Hans began foaling, her future was set.
She went from helping out in Columbus to spending the weekends at Fonner Park in Grand Island and State Fair Park in Lincoln. Martinez has never had any other job. She graduated on Mother's Day and was at Atokad Park in South Sioux City training horses the very next day.
It's been a family affair ever since.
Armando, a jockey, and Kelli have two children, Damian and Victoria.
Damian is an assistant trainer in Iowa and Kentucky as well as a jockey agent in Nebraska.
Victoria is now an esthetician who lives in Colorado, but was once her own assistant trainer alongside mom working in the barns and on the track each day.
Though she's several hours away, Victoria is always back with mom in heart.
"She watches every race on Twin Spires and TVG. She don't miss a race," Kelli said. "Believe me, she calls me right away and gives me her input right away."
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Kelli's sister, Jodi Lopez, was at Kelli's side training horses until her son became school age. The two, plus their parents, once ran M-L-H Stables (Martinez, Lopez, Hans) from 2001 to 2011, winning 72 races and cashing in more the $643,000 in prize money.
Jodi also married a horseman and runs Lopez stables with her husband, Alfredo.
Armando is a jockey who has made over 17,000 starts in his career and won 1,877 races. His winners have earned more than $10 million.
He began riding horses in Mexico at age 12 and found his way to California where he caught the eye of legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas. A virtual unknown on the west coast, he chose instead to start in Montana and Wyoming before eventually finding his way to Nebraska where he met Kelli.
He saddled 19 winners at Columbus last year.
Horses trained by Kelli and Armando have run 4,880 lifetime races before Friday, won 418 times and produced over $3 million in prize money.
Last year at Ag Park, Martinez-trained horses won more races than any others, 11, and were third in total winnings, $35,796.
A third of the way through the 2019 schedule, Martinez was tied with William Joe David with five wins and was second in earnings with $17,250. Of nine starts, Martinez trained horses have finished in the top three eight times.
Armando is not riding this Ag Park season after a freak accident in the gates on Memorial day left him with a broken tibia and fibula in his leg and a broken ankle in three places.
"Not to get to ride just about kills him, but he's been a trooper and he's still helping us with what he can do. I just feel bad because he's part of the team," Kelli said. "But everybody who has ridden for us here and at Prairie Meadows has done a fantastic job."
The key, Kelli said, is to a consistent approach to every animal in the stable whether it's theirs or from another owner.
"I like them all. Whether they run for $2,500 or for allowance, they all get fed the same and treated the same," she said. "Some have got more ability than others and some take a lot of work to get it out of them. They’re all individuals, just like athletes."
One recent example is mare Free and Proud, a horse that two years ago went 3-6-1 in 14 starts with over $52,000 in winnings. Last year she raced just four times, won twice and was third two other times. This year her top finish was third before winning on July 26 at Prairie Meadows then on opening night in Columbus.
"Some horses, it’s just right there. Others, you’ve got to dig and find and figure it out," Kelli said. "That’s why you’ve got to have a team and that’s why I miss Armando so much because he’s always on the backs of them and can tell me a lot."
But whether it's the long hours every day, the challenges that come in training with certain horses or even freak accidents that sideline a jockey, Kelli Martinez says there's just nothing like seeing your work come across the line in the lead.
"There’s nothing like the feeling of putting in all the work and time and effort and being exhausted but then being able to walk in that winner’s circle," she said. "It’s a sense of pride, happiness and excitement that no one can explain. You earn every darn thing you do out here; everybody does."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.