Trenton NJ — It was Aug. 17, one day before Its Showtime was set to race in an overnight at Red Mile and trainer Tony Alagna had no one to drive the colt. Showing supreme confidence in an 18-year-old without a pari-mutuel drive yet to his credit, Alagna called the U.S. Trotting Association.
“Before that day I only had my (qualifying/fair) license,” said Marvin “Little Flea” Luna. “The horse was entered to race, Tony’s original drivers weren’t there. Tony came up to me the day before the race, he said he called the USTA and got me my (provisional) license to drive that horse. It was all new to me.”
Luna rewarded that gesture the best way possible, as he started from post seven and drove Its Showtime to victory. In the renowned trainer’s mind, the performance wasn’t a fluke.
“Marvin has been a great asset to our team,” Alagna said. “He shows a natural ability behind a horse that should help him achieve great things in the future as a driver.”
Since that first win, Luna has driven 14 more times and posted two wins, a second and three thirds. But his inaugural drive was not without some angst. As if there wasn’t enough pressure associated with a first career drive, rain began to fall in Lexington, leaving the Little Flea wondering if he would flutter that night.
“I was really nervous at first,” Luna said. “Tony gave me a great talk, great advice. The rain came and it was like a 30-minute delay. I was sitting there with my helmet on and I’m like ‘This had to happen to me. It’s raining and they’re probably going to cancel the race.’ I was all sad.
“The next thing you know they said, ‘We’re ready to race.’ I was behind the gate, I was still nervous, but as soon as that gate closed all that nervousness went away and it was all showtime from there.”
Or all Its Showtime, in this case.
Leaving from an outside post, Luna knew he wanted to get out fast.
“I floored it out of there,” he said. “I sat third and after the quarter I moved, I got to the front before the half and led the whole way. By three-quarters I was up by five and I ended up winning by 13 lengths.”
And a career was underway.
The son of Angel “Flea” Luna — hence Marvin’s nickname — the younger Luna grew up helping his dad when he was a groom and worked with Casie Coleman.
“I would help him, before I went to school, clean buckets and harness horses,” said Luna, who was born in Freehold, N.J., but lived most of his life in Delray Beach, Fla. “My dad’s been in the harness business for a long time. It was pretty easy to be involved with the horses. I liked it. My dad always expected me to jog them or whatever. And it was pretty easy to train them.”
When he was 16, Marvin needed a summer job and a friend suggested he hook up with trainer Trent Stohler.
“I was cleaning stalls, starting from the bottom,” Luna said. “One day he asked me, ‘Do you know how to jog?’ I told him yes. I started jogging, one thing led to another and I asked him if I could train. He said ‘Yup’ and it’s all history from there.”
Once he started training, Luna discovered what he wanted to do with his life.
“Since that day I trained that one horse, I fell in love and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a driver,” he said. “I was always a groom, I loved it. But as soon as I sat behind that horse training, I knew that was for me.”
Luna remained with Stohler until this past December, and credits him as being one of his biggest influences along with Alagna.
Marvin drove numerous qualifiers but with his desire to get started on a driving career, he approached Alagna about working for him.
“I thought I’d have a better chance of being a driver with Tony,” Luna said. “I have friends who work for him and who have trained for him. I would talk to Tony and I would help him warm up in Lexington while I was working for Trent. Tony knew me well. He knew I could train, and it was easy to get in contact with him.”
Since that initial rainy night success, Luna won a second race with Its Showtime and also drove Babs Jansen to victory. All 15 of his drives have come at the Red Mile and all but one have been with Alagna horses.
“My third win was with my favorite filly, Babs Jansen,” Luna said. “I’ve been training her since Florida as a baby. I knew she was a good filly. She had bad luck. She wasn’t racing real good. Winning with her was awesome. It was amazing. It was the second time I raced her. The first time we had a little traffic trouble.”
It has been a tremendous learning summer for Luna, who will be at Lexington for the Grand Circuit and will remain there until either after the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale or the Breeders Crown.
His colors are currently yellow and black (for no significant reason) but he and Alagna are discussing what his permanent colors will be. Alagna is suggesting his own colors, Marvin is pondering blue and white since they are the colors of his parents’ homeland, Guatemala.
Whether he decides on Alagna’s colors or not, Luna knows he is still getting a first-rate education.
“Tony has taught me a lot,” Luna said. “He’s taught me there’s always something to learn from a horse that I trained. I’ve always used what I’ve learned from training a horse, when I drive in a race.”
He is hoping to have many more drives in his future, as one of the best in the business has served as inspiration.
“One of my favorite drivers is Brian Sears,” Luna said. “Watching him win races just motivated me to do the same. He’s such a great driver, I look up to him and I want to do the same.
“That feeling you get crossing the wire when you win is amazing.”