THE FILLY THAT COULDN'T RUN STRAIGHT
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.
Later, I was to read that Mary's first trainer, Louis Underwood, had said of her: "She couldn't beat me the last eighth of a mile, and I'm 76 years old." After that, they banned her at Hialeah.
"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."
"Hey, Henry. Wanna know who was riding the horse she beat?"
A darkness came into his eyes as he looked down at his program.
"Of course," he spit. "Vasquez. The goddamn crook. Like I told you, you cannot bet the man...Who else. Vasquez! C'mon, you corrupt Jankee dog. Buy you a drink."
That should be the end of the story, but it's not. In her next start, Sunshine Mary managed to finish ahead of four horses. Then, on August 31, 1981, she tried again. After breaking dead last from the gate at Calder, the race summary says, she gained ground along the rail and was moving up smartly when she came to a section of fence that is removed in the mornings so that horses working out can leave the track and return to the barn. Seeing this, Mary suddenly turned left and tried to jump the fence.
She broke her neck and had to be destroyed. Even while her trainer wept, a pet-food company rejected Sunshine Mary's body. She was carted off to a dump.
For my own part, I never found the courage to call Henry Martinez about what had happened. And now, I don't play Vasquez if I can help it.
The bowl games get going in earnest next week, and there's probably no college football fan who won't savor that rematch between Florida and Florida State in the Sugar. It certainly looks like the main event of the postseason.
Here in Colorado, there's plenty to crow about, at least for now. It's pretty to think that those glorious upstarts from Colorado State, playing in their first Holiday Bowl, can upset Michigan, but it doesn't seem that way. Led by Ty Wheatley, the Wolverines are bigger, stronger and faster--and the heartbreak laid on them by a certain other Colorado team this season is bound to provide added motivation.
Rams coach Sonny Lubick will pull out the stops, but CSU is one eight-point dog that won't bite: Michigan 31, Rams 20, though I'd love to be wrong.
Meanwhile, Boo-Hoo Holtz and the Biting Irish will have all they can handle in the Fiesta from the Golden Buffaloes, who are playing their last game for Coach Bill McCartney. There are plenty of CU distractions, of course--the Jesse Jackson/ Rick Neuheisel race flap, the pending departure of assistant Bob Simmons for Okie State and Rashaan Salaam's Heisman Trophy win.
But none of that will keep the balanced, talented Buffs from thrashing the Domers: CU 41, Notre Dame 17.
The real blowout should be the Rose Bowl. Oregon had a nice little season for itself, but big, bad Penn State will whack 'em by 40. Meanwhile, the Senior Bowl, usually a redheaded cousin to the glamour matchups, has some cachet of its own this year: Three outstanding senior quarterbacks--Alcorn State's Steve McNair, Alabama's Jay Barker and Penn State's Kerry Collins--will all be on the field, complete with NFL coaching.
Think the pro scouts will have a look at that one?
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