Curiosity-seekers circled the paddock at Calder Race Course, trying to catch a glimpse of the equine star. Television cameras followed the filly's every move. A network TV crew had wired her trainer for sound. "You'd think we had Seattle Slem here," a track official said.
The comparison wasn't quite proprer. Seattle Slew's career had a number of blemishes, after all. The cynosure at Calder was the embodiment of perfection. Sunshine Mary had raced 10 times in her career and had finished last in all 10, usually losing by about a sixteenth of a mile. She was so inept that the Florida stewards temporarily barred her. But after The Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service distributed an article chronicling her record of futility, she became a celebrity, the Marv Throneberry of horsedom.
But there was at least one man who still thought Sunshine Mary might have some potential as a racehorse.
The filly's owner, having grown a bit weary of paying her bills, had asked a new trainer, John Valkanet, to try luck with her. Valkanet agreed enthusiatically. "I wanted a challenge to my ability," he said.
Valkanet had spent most of his life working as a policeman in Chicago, but had trained a few horses on the side. "Many dollars went down the drain," he conceded, but he claimed a few triumphs, too, like the time he equipped a horse with eyeglasses.
Valkanet was training a "morning glory," an animal who trained beautifully in the mornings but never picked up his feet in the afternoon. So he fashioned a special set of blinkers, covered with tinted glass, so the horse would think it was dawn when he was racing. "He won by six and paid $150," Valkanet said.
He was not a man to be daunted by Sunshine Mary's record. He saw hope. "The previous trainer was a little over the hill and he did not take care of this animal," Valkanet said. "She had more troubles than the United Nations. Her teeth were biting on the inside walls of her mouth something horrible. She had worms to a great degree. She had an infected kidney, liver and vaginal tract. What's left? The tail?
"I trained her diligently for weeks," Valkanet said. "She was practically running away with the exercise boy. I said to the stewards that I wished they'd give her another chance."
Last week Valkanet entered Sunshine Mary in a $7,500 maiden claiming race at Calder, and the media converged on the Miami track for the event. "This race to me is the Preakness, the Belmont, the kit and kaboodle," the trainer told them.
Sunshine Mary broke awkwardly, as usual. But after a quarter-mile she was running eighth in the field of 11. When she turned for home she started to weaken. In the stretch she was 10th and there was only one rival behind her, a mildly inept filly named Ready for Love. Sunshine Mary was slowing with every stride, but Ready for Love was matching her rate of deceleration. They hit the wire almost simultaneously. It took the photo finish camera to show that Sunshine Mary had held onto 10th place by a nose. She had beaten a horse!
To Valkanetg, this effort was as mighty as anything Seattle Slew ever did, and his perception of the race was slightly different from that of the official chart. "She went to her knees at the start, dropped 20 lengths behind the field and caught not one but two horses," the trainer said. "If she could do that, what could she do with a good start? She may win the next time out."
That is unlikely, since Sunshine Mary always gets off to a slow, awkward start. And Calder doesn't offer races cheap enough for her. Most likely, Sunshine Mary will succeed only in joining the great undistinguished mass of mediocre thoroughbreds, having lost the distinction of being the worst horse in the United States.