The Greatest Race Day

The Greatest Race Day

I want to tell you the story of the most incredible day of racing I’ve ever experienced.

It was the kind of day that, even if I lived and breathed horse racing for another thirty-five years (as I have for the last thirty-five), I will never see the likes of again.

In 1986, I was living in the small village of La Purisima, Baja California – Mexico. Chance had brought me there (a long story for another day), but I was comfortably lost and incommunicado in a desert canyon two hours north of the city of Insurgentes deep in the central desert of Baja, and intended to stay that way for the indeterminate future.

I lived in a one-room palapa. It was a palm-thatch covered open-air patio, but mine had been ‘improved’ and was enclosed – kind of.  There were two large windows that held no glass or screens, and a single doorway with no door. This permitted entrance to all sorts of creatures that then shared the palapa with me; bats at night, scorpions by day and night, a small, sleek, black snake that lived in the palm thatch and (I justified to myself) helped keep the cute little kangaroo rats at an acceptable minimum, an occasional tarantula (they are really fairly harmless), and a host of other critters I won’t list. It was really just like camping out, except I couldn’t see the stars at night.

Somewhat more pleasant as visitors were the three or four short, sun-wrinkled old women who showed up each morning with fresh, warm tortillas and local fruit. They were my neighbors, and though they were kind and beautiful little folk, their real reason for being there was nothing more than uncontrollable curiosity about the ‘gringo’ who had mysteriously shown up in their midst.

‘Chapulina’ (little grasshopper?!) was the oldest, and appeared to be their ring leader. The others were somewhat shy, but not this old crone. After a brief few days at the start of my long stay (an initial ‘sizing-up’ period I guess), she began coming over at any time of day – and ‘day’ for them began at the crack of dawn. She would walk right in – no knocking – I could be sleeping, reading, eating – no matter, and brazenly, yet casually pick through my stuff. By the end of the first week, she knew more about the small inventory of personal gear I had there than I did.

But – on to the horse race part of the story . . .

One scorching afternoon Chapulina’s husband, Juan, came over. Only a shade over 5’ in height with a full head of pure white hair, he had to have been in his 70s, but still worked hard every day of his life – as the village blacksmith. His specialty was machetes. Ranchers came from all over to buy his machetes which were famed for their unmatched hardness.

I once saw him demonstrate the rare quality of his blades. We were sitting idly in the shade back of his smithy when a fancy-dressed, cowboy-booted, dandy from the ‘big city’ drove up in a brand new – with added chrome everywhere – pick-up truck. He notified Juan that he had come to “possibly” buy one of his machetes – “if they were good enough.” The city-slicker was sporting a very special-looking engraved machete himself – sheathed in an embossed leather scabbard that hung from his snake-skin belt.

Juan smiled, and complimented him on his fine looking machete. The dandy made some remark about how much he had paid for it in La Paz, how it was absolute top-of-the-line, etc..  Old Juan’s eyes twinkled roguishly as he asked the guy if he’d be willing to do a test – his gaudy blade against one of Juan’s. The city cowboy kind of scoffed, and said he didn’t require that Juan’s machetes be as fine as his, as long as they were of a decent quality. The glint in the old blacksmith’s eye brighter now – he asked the man to pick out one from among the four machetes hanging on the wall of the shed – which he did. Juan then requested the man’s chichi machete. He handed it over with an obvious air of proud superiority.

Juan placed it blade edge up in a sort of wooden cradle that was on his work bench, and took the plain-looking blade the man had chosen from the wall. Suddenly – with a speed and force that surprised – Juan swung his home-made blade and struck the fancy machete in the cradle – cleaving it almost completely through!

I was mouth-gaping shocked. The city-slicker was mouth-gaping, eyes-bulging, body-trembling shocked. For a few seconds, I didn’t know if he’d pull out a pistol, or collapse to the floor and cry like a baby! Juan held his home-made blade up close to the man’s face – there was only the tiniest nick in the blade where it had struck the other machete.

Anyway – I’ve side-tracked my racing story again, but the city slicker ended up buying the remaining three machetes on the spot, and ordered a half-dozen more to be forged and picked up in a few weeks.

So – on this particular afternoon (mentioned above – before the side-track), Juan informed me that there was to be a special horse race the following day over in San Juanico, a small fishing village on the coast about a 45 min. drive away. Since I had a beat-up old ’62 Chevy panel truck, I was the prime candidate for hauling a bunch of the local crew over to the festivities. It promised to be great fun, and I readily agreed.

Mid-morning the next day Chapulina, Juan, myself, a couple of other village adults I only recognized by sight, three teen agers I didn’t know at all, and two young children (who were my almost constant companions and taught me more Spanish during my time there than I knew previously or have learned since), Sanci, and Paquito – all squeegeed into my truck and set off for the races.

The drive to San Juanico was a progression from the blinding heat of our narrow desert canyon at La Purisima to the relative coolness of the barren coast. We drove into a thick fog that I was assured would disappear shortly (it did), and found a sleepy little village that they said would be transformed as the festivities got into full swing (it was), and parked on a beach where I was told the finest race horses in all of Mexico would soon be arriving (they did not).

In fact, as far as I could tell not much was happening at all.

A few other assorted vehicles – including a tractor, a dune buggy, and three or four pick-ups were more-or-less lined up on the beach, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. We all piled out of my truck, and the teenagers immediately disappeared at a run. Without a word, Chapulina started off towards the pueblo that was 200 yards back up the beach, and a short climb up from the sand. The rest of us followed her – me with Sanci and Paquito pulling at my arms and chattering enthusiastically. But their usual easy-to-understand, kid-level Spanish had morphed into an excited, verbal craziness that was unintelligible to me.

The pueblo of San Juanico sits on a sandy bluff just inside the protected curve of a headland that juts out into the ocean in a dog-legged formation.  This creates a small bay, and a long stretch of sandy beach below the village. San Juanico is home to many of the abalone divers of the area. These divers earn a decent living (by local standards) from their dangerous work, and are, in general, somewhat better off than others in the village. There were an unusual number of new, and newer-looking pick-ups parked around town, however the shacks that passed for houses were only a small cut above my palapa back in La Purisima. Many of the fishermen and their families are migrants and move up and down the coast with the changing seasons. Because of that, the pick-up truck and boat come first. The living quarters are then only a simple afterthought and any shelter that keeps out the blowing sand seems to be acceptable and sufficient for them.

Other than several mangy dogs, and a passing car or two, the streets were deserted. It was hard for me to imagine that it was actually a festival day with a famous (again – by local standards) horse race to be run. There was no possible way that there was a race track there, and anyway – how can you have a horse race without people or horses!?

Chapulina ducked into a narrow lane (I heard voices) and after a few steps turned into a little extended archway (many voices – louder now) that opened out into a medium sized plaza . . . that was filled with people!

Okay – we’d finally arrived at the party!

Though it was only around 10:30 a.m., I could see that tequila, and pulque (a locally brewed corn beer) were already flowing freely. There were some grills smoking with various parts of pigs and chickens sizzling on them. There were ladies hand-making tortillas at one little stand, and seven or eight long, community tables placed out in the plaza. There were scores of folks eating, standing in small clutches talking animatedly, and children running everywhere.

Sanci and Paquito let go my arms and joined the fray.  I stood – a bit overwhelmed at this sudden onslaught of activity – and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I moseyed around among the smiling, staring faces, and noticed that both Juan and Chapulina were now talking to folks and nodding in my direction. They were obviously explaining why the gringo was here. Little by little the staring pretty much stopped, and I stuttered and hand-signaled my way into some quick-formed friendships with several of the men in the plaza.

And indeed it turned out that practically the only topic of conversation among the men – was THE horse race.

Three local ranchers had entries. As well (and much of the conversation revolved around this), there was a ‘mystery’ horse being trailered in from the capital city of La Paz (about 4 hours distant). Each entrant had to put up a fixed amount to enter, and that created the pot – the purse money. I never knew how much, but I can’t think it was more than the equivalent of 4 or 5 hundred USD (but remember – this was in 1986).

But the side-action was hot and heavy. Betting between the towns people (primarily but not exclusively the menfolk) was amazing.  Most of it was seemingly done on a handshake and a word, although I did see a couple of businessman-types gathering larger sums together for holding until after the race.

The fiesta – the eating, drinking, and betting carried on into the afternoon. I kept asking Juan when the ‘event’ was to happen – when was post-time?  “Muy pronto,” (very soon) was his continuing response, yet the hours passed.

The local ranchers brought their runners out and paraded them around. By this time, the fiesta had spilled out into the streets and migrated to an area at the edge of the village with a large open space – beyond which was the stark expanse of raw desert.  A path less steep than the one we had earlier climbed to get up to the village also meandered down to the beach from this point.

I could see that many more cars and trucks were now parked on the beach – maybe forty or fifty vehicles – and lined up facing each other. I realized that was going to be the race track. A straight run down the beach around an orange VW beetle that was parked maybe three-quarters of a mile down the sand– and back to the finish line – which was two 10-foot high poles (that had appeared since I’d parked my truck down there several hours earlier) with a line of pink and yellow, paper ribbons stretched between them.

It seems we were all waiting for the mystery horse from La Paz to arrive so the race could get underway. But the afternoon wore on – and on. The tall Cardon cactus threw long shadows now. The sun was falling towards the ocean horizon, and everyone wondered if the La Paz entry would show at all or not.

To kill time and release a bit of their pent-up nervousness, two of the local horses and their jockeys were having a few impromptu short sprint races in the clearing atop the bluff overlooking the ‘official’ track down at the beach. I’d never before seen riders ‘racing’ horses while holding a bottle of Corona in their free hand!

The ‘jockeys’ were just ranch hands. One was tall and gangly – the other two more Mexican-like in their stature (which is to say – short, stocky, and beer bellied) – and all three obviously weighed in at normal weights – 140 to 160 lbs. They wore no silks (though two of them did sport flashy, bright bandanas around their necks), and all three had on levis and cowboy boots. The horses had typical Mexican-western saddles with the oversize saddle horns (for roping and controlling cattle).

A word about the horses: They were quarter horses, or a mix with primarily quarter horse blood, and looked like decent specimens for what they were – cow ponies.

Throughout the day, I had been approached by dozens of men – and even Chapulina – offering a wager (with their idea of fair odds). Juan, for one, couldn’t believe that I didn’t want to bet on the “sure-thing” – the reigning ‘campeon’ (champion) for the last two years – a buckskin gelding they called, “El de Ybarra” – meaning ‘the one from Ybarra’ (a village a bit further up the canyon from La Purisima).

The horse did indeed have great, bulging rump muscles that rippled impressively as he strutted around the clearing and kicked up his heels. He looked like he could really run – for maybe 450 yards!  But from the placement of the cars down on the beach, the race appeared to me like it was going to be more like a mile and a half. I wanted to see the mystery runner from La Paz before putting any of my pesos down on “El de Ybarra” or either of the other two locals (on which the odds were climbing enticingly).

Suddenly, a noticeably heightened buzz . . . the mystery horse was arriving.

A big, white, 4-wheel drive dual cab pick-up with honking large dual back wheels, hand-operated spotlights on both driver and passenger sides, a row of amber-colored exterior roof lights across the top of the cab, and pulling a single-horse trailer burst into the clearing and stopped at the far edge near the path down to the beach.

The crowd went almost silent in anticipation.

The passenger side door opened and the jockey got out. A real honest-to-goodness jockey – dressed in red and white silks and maybe 115 lbs max. The driver side opened and a regular-looking dude got out and deferentially opened the back cab door. A distinguished-looking, dark complexioned man in a light tan, tailored, western suit stepped out. He was, no doubt, the owner. While leisurely lighting a thin, chocolate-brown cigarillo, he scanned the crowd, and then told the driver to get the horse.

The crowd edged closer . . . the trailer doors opened . . . and – oh my God!  One of the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen in my life literally erupted out of that trailer! The handler had him on a long rope and the driver immediately jumped onto the rope as well. The horse, a smallish, jet-black Arabian stallion, was like an enraged Pegasus (minus the wings). He was glorious; wild-eyed, snorting fire, kicking, and trying to savage anything that moved.

The crowd scattered for safety. And if the truth be known at that moment – every single man who had bet on any of the local horses – would have gladly taken those bets back, turned around and put it all on the black devil from La Paz – and then doubled-down by also betting their farms, boats, pick-up trucks, and wives!  I realized then who the two businessmen-types were who collected the larger sums of money.  They were agents of the mystery horse’s connections – the advance cadre of a small-time betting coup!

I was just as flabbergasted as everyone else. I figured the horse had to be drugged up – God knows on what – cocaine, meth, snake venom?  But maybe not – who knows? Whether it was drugs or the horse’s naturally wild temperament, the splendid beast was in an absolutely crazed frenzy.

What I’m going to relate next will be very hard for some to believe, but I can only state that I will tell it exactly as it happened – no exaggeration –just a simple recounting of the fantastical events as they actually unfolded . . .

The horse’s jockey – who obviously had been through this scene before – had grabbed a rope from the truck and was positioning himself at a safe distance behind the horse – which had been maneuvered now by the other two men to be facing away from the truck. He lassoed one of the horse’s rear legs and tied the rope off to the trailer. The other two men stretched him out into a position that prevented the animal from rearing, kicking, or bolting. The owner calmly stepped in and threw a blanket-like hood over the horses head. This stopped his antics momentarily, and the jockey jumped onto the already bridled horse – bareback!

Stop here and visualize the scene more clearly . . .

There are maybe 75 or 80 locals – fiesta-goers who only a very short time ago had been in a happy-go-lucky mood  – drinking, eating, making wagers with money they probably couldn’t afford to lose, but hopeful – and enjoying watching the local steeds with their proud rancher owners and farm-hand jocks parade and play around while waiting for the race to begin.

Now this!

. . . this creature from Hades has burst into their world and they are witnessing a spectacle (every single one of them hypnotized, and frozen in place by the raw fury of it) that they scarcely could have even dreamt of moments before.

One of the two rope handlers had left the long rope to the other and he grabbed a short rope-like apparatus from the trailer. With this he managed to tie the jockey’s feet together under the horse’s belly! Now the jock couldn’t be bucked off, or get loose from the horse at all – no matter what! That poor jock’s life was then and there in imminent danger.

They somehow get the rope off the horse’s leg, yanked off the hood, and cut him loose all in one swift, nicely timed action. The horse bolted immediately, ran off wildly, and disappeared into the desert with the jock holding on for dear life.

At this point, the locals are feeling a little better about their chances. By the time they get the insane creature back – if they ever do – he will be half-dead from exhaustion, and hopefully have no chance in the race.

Everyone moved down to the beach. The sun was just setting. The sky was ablaze in a brilliant orange that was quickly turning to purples, and the opposing line of vehicles on the beach all had their lights now switched on. The local horses were nervously prancing around near the starting rope. We waited for the black fire- breather to return.

Sure enough – he appeared down the beach near the orange VW “turning point,” and came running towards us. He arrived in a washed-out frazzle – completely lathered up from head to tail. There were numerous ‘jumping cholla’ cactus segments clinging to his flanks. He was bleeding slightly from one of his forelegs – his sides were heaving in violent bellows-breathing, and the jockey now looked every bit as spent and demented as the horse itself.

Finally, after eight of the most utterly fascinating hours of my life – it was race time.

The story has taken longer than I anticipated, so I’ll end it quickly here . . .

“El de Ybarra” went to the front – for about 300 yds – but then the La Paz horse blew by him like he was standing still.

The locals had one more short-lived glimmer of hope when the black tornado got to the orange VW at the turning point. He bolted again, and ran off a little ways towards the bluffs – allowing “El de Ybarra” and the other two to come around the turn and re-take the lead. But that balloon quickly deflated as the jock got him straightened out, and headed back towards the finish line. The black wraith from La Paz ended up winning – eventfully, but easily.

I had been so captivated by the afternoon’s incredible developments after the mystery horse arrived that I never ended up making a wager at all. The drive back to La Purisima was very subdued. Everyone else had bet on “El de Ybarra.”  Juan kept whispering under his breath to no one in particular – “pero que caballo!” (what a horse!)

What a horse indeed – and what a day of racing.  The San Juanico Stakes (as I like to call it), and that magnificent animal will forever remain vivid in the memory of every man, woman, and child who witnessed the strange events of that wild and wonderful day.


  1. Hi Gary,

    Thank you for your gift of “Zen…” and the fascinating story of the Greatest Race. I appreciate your view on racing and how so much of it depends on our developing intuition and then trusting that by following through with sound betting practices.

    All the best – Joe.

    • Joe – Thanks for the kind comments – hope you and yours are having a great Labor Day holiday long weekend. – Gary

  2. larry outlaw

    everyone should have an experience like that in their lifetime,you would make a great story teller.

  3. dave henry

    Wow. Great story. Handicapping information and inspired literature all at one site!

  4. Jim Riddle

    El caballo loco! Thanks for sharing such an amazing experience. I will always remember this as I embark on my path of “enlightenment.” A raw rookie with an eagerness to learn, I too have yet to place my first bet…let the adventure begin!

    • Jim – Thanks for the comment . . . You do indeed have a great adventure in front of you – best of fortune to you in the most fascinating challenge. Gary

  5. jim gersin

    Sounds like a once in a lifrtime experience. What was the Beyer? Thanks

    • Jim –

      The “Beyer” reference made me smile – thanks for the mood lightening comment, Jim. – Gary

  6. Thanks to all for your kind comments on the story.

    – Gary

  7. Along with that knack for handicapping, it appears you have that gift of storytelling also! Man of many talents…

  8. Very cool indeed! What a vivid story.

  9. jerry claytor

    I loved it! I have similar stories of my travels and can easily relate to this one.God made the horses and the dogs.They love us and I know we all love them.Tanx,my friends

  10. Excellent story and well told.

  11. Your a good story teller. Write a novel?

  12. Good Story . . . reminds me of the style of Hemingway . . . Nick

  13. Mark Twain would wink and nod approval.

  14. kool story


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