If Sunshine Mary had a tombstone, her epitaph would have to read: "The race is not always to the swift."
But bad racehorses do not get buried under a granite marker in a tranquil meadow, not even if they have become nationally renowned for their ineptitude. For Sunshine Mary, who died of a broken neck at Calder Race Course on Monday, the end was as inglorious as the rest of her career.
After she had run 10 times and finished last 10 times -- usually by about a sixteenth of a mile -- Sunshine Mary became everybody's favorite underdog and a darling of the media. Network television crews converged on Miami for her 11th start, and the filly responded with the ultimate achievement of her career: she finished next to last, beating one of her rivals by a nose. The last time she ran she continued her improvement and beat four horses. Trainer John Valkanet couldn't have been prouder if he had won the Triple Crown.
"I was changing her mind about not wanting to run," Valkanet said. "I'd put her with two or three other horses in the morning and let her win. I tried to instill in her the desire to win. And she proved I was right.
"After a while, she didn't bite me any more. When she heard my voice, she'd put her head on my shoulder and I'd pet her nose. She needed tender, loving care and I loved her, like it was some kind of Mickey Rooney story. I thought she was going to win the race on Monday."
Standing on a chair in the grandstand, Valkanet watched the rock-bottom maiden race that would be the 14th and last of Sunshine Mary's career. The filly broke a bit tardily from the inside post position -- such slow starts had been a chronic problem for her -- then took a few strides before she swerved sharply to the left. This is the area where horses leave the track after morning workouts to return to their barns and, Valkanet said, "She thought that was the way to go home."
Sunshine Mary crashed against the rail and tumbled over it. "When she went down," her trainer said, "I knew she was never going to get up. When I got there, her mouth and nose were full of blood; she had fractured her skull and broken her neck. I saw a lot of tough things when I was a policeman in Chicago, but this just made me sick."
The filly was nearly dead when she hit the ground, and a veterinarian gave her an injection that quickly put her out of her misery. After watching his one-horse stable go out of business, Valkanet had to break the news to his 92-year-old father, who had helped him care for Sunshine Mary until he had to be hospitalized recently.
"When my father asked how she had done, I told him she had finished fifth," Valkanet said. "The next day, though, I had to tell him the truth, and he burst into tears. We were both crying like two little kids. You can get to love these horses."
The filly they loved was carted off the track at Calder and, Valkanet assumed, was taken to a tourist attraction called Lion Country Safari, where the carcass would be fed to the wild animals. There would be no tombstones or epitaphs for the worst horse in America.