By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
We had Cuban sandwiches, oxtail stew and cold beer in a place on Southwest Eighth Street. Then we drove out to Calder in Martinez's new Coupe de Ville.
"Nice car, Henry," I said.
"It's okay." He shrugged. "Blessings of America. Who you like today?"
I opened my fresh copy of the Daily Racing Form, went to work and found one in the third. "Pineapple Pete," I announced. "Stretching out to a mile after closing last time, and he beat better three races back. Plus, he has Vasquez on him."
Martinez shot me a sidelong look. "Vasquez? The goddamn crook. Play Vasquez and he stiffs you. Don't play Vasquez and his horse turns into Secretariat. Miserable bastard. Hey, Guy-oh. Don't talk to me about goddamn Vasquez."
"So don't play him, Henry," I said. "Please. That way, you'll lose. And I'll win one for a change. Pineapple Pete--my man."
"Okay, Guy-oh," Martinez said. "I lose. You win. Spirit of sacrifice. But Vasquez is still a shit."
In the third, Pineapple Pete drew away from the field coming out of the turn and won by a good seven lengths. When he came back to the winner's circle, Jacinto Vasquez tossed his whip to the groom and smiled. Martinez was watching him through the binoculars and muttering.
"Okay, Jankee dog," he said to me. "You win. Ignorant Cubano Boy comes to United States. I.C.B. learns his lesson. Which is: Always bet Vasquez. What other wisdom you got for me? Buy Studebaker stock? Go down to Dallas, ride around with Jack Kennedy? C'mon, buy you a drink. Imperialist pig."
I remember this certain Florida afternoon in the spring of 1981 for a couple of reasons. One, I had not seen my old boarding-school friend Henry Martinez, who had come from Cuba in an open boat to escape Fidel, for six years. Now he had been entertaining in Little Havana for three days. These were not your white-bread Protestant entertainments, either, but full-scale revels. Wine, women and song. Everything that damp, feverish, exotic Miami had to offer in those days. I was worn out.
"What's wrong with you, Guy-oh?" Henry had demanded somewhere in the middle of Day Three. "Wanna go back up to Nueva Jork without having a good time? Oh, excuse me, I forget. You live in Denver now. Nice town. You got cows in the backyard?"
"Absolutely," I answered. "And in the living room. We ride them to work. Every day. Never heard of a Cadillac out there. Or Florida. Or Cuba."
The second reason I remember that afternoon is a racehorse. Not Pineapple Pete, but a filly named Sunshine Mary. I know. I know. You've never heard of her, just like you've never heard of Henry Martinez. But Sunshine Mary was a piece of work, too.
"Lemme look at that," Martinez said, sticking his big face into the folds of the Racing Form. "They must be kidding. This the way you do things in this country? You people are crazy. C'mon. Let's have a drink."
At the bar, we opened the Form to full double-truck width and there it was, in undeniable black-and-white. In her ten-race career, Sunshine Mary had never beaten a single horse. Not one. They'd given her blinkers, then taken them off. They'd altered her bit, changed her jockey and fooled with her training regimen. But nothing hastened her along: She was fine in the mornings but had finished dead last in all of her races, by a total of more than 300 lengths.
"Unbelievable," Martinez wailed. "Crazy Jankee rodents. They let this thing run today? She's the Chicago Cubs, for God's sake. She's Jerry Quarry getting his brains detached by Ali. What a country!" He was grinning.
There she was, Sunshine Mary, listed as a starter in the sixth race at Calder. Undoubtedly, she was the worst thoroughbred in Florida, probably the worst on the planet. Later, I was to read that, despite this, the filly's new trainer, John Valkanet, had taken a liking to her. He'd seen a glimmer of hope in her workouts and, after treating her with kindness, decided to bring her back to the races for one more chance.
"After a while, she didn't bite me anymore," Valkanet later said. "When she heard my voice, she put her head on my shoulder and I'd pet her nose. I loved her like it was some kind of Mickey Rooney story."
Enthralled with lost causes, Henry and I put five bucks each on her.
It would be nice to report that Sunshine Mary won the race that afternoon as Henry and I watched from the bar, and that she put a bundle in our pockets. She didn't, of course. As a 99-1 shot, she ran tenth in a field of eleven, finishing just a nose ahead of the last horse.
"Wonderful." Martinez said. "Listen, Guy-oh. Here is the living, breathing demonstration of self-improvement in the United States. And the glory of democracy. Try, try again. The American Dream. She beats one horse. Shit. I can beat one horse."