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Weighing the Odds in San Miguel

by Audax Minor II

Handicapping is the science of picking the winners of horse races. Calling it a science is clearly an exaggeration because a science suggests certainty and even the best handicappers can only pick a winner about a third of the time. I'd say it's about half art, half science. And for some of us, it's almost the perfect pastime.

Here in San Miguel, I like to do my handicapping outdoors in a park. The weather here is really too nice to be handicapping indoors. But the question is: which park? To answer this, I have spent a lot of time in San Miguel parks assessing their suitability for handicapping.

With this column I will be giving you the benefit of my experience and wisdom. I realize that I should be charging many pesos for this advice, or starting a dot-com that I could be IPOing in a couple of years.

But that's just not me. I'm into altruism. I'm into "giving back." I'm into "making a difference." I'm into humanity. And as you can probably tell, I'm especially into people who sententiously tell me what they're "into." This is why I'm offering you, my faithful (though quite possibly, non-existent) reader, this rundown of the best San Miguel parks for handicapping as a public service free of charge.


Okay, let's start with the most obvious – the Jardin. It's the park we all know and love; it's got the great view of the Parroquia; and for centuries, it's been the crossroads of the town. This was true even before it was the Parroquia as we know it now.

For the first three and a half centuries of its existence, it was just an open dirt field where people might meet and shop at the Sunday market there. At about the time the new façade of the Parroquia was finished, just before the start of the 1900s, the Jardin took on more or less the appearance we now know. The plaza was paved, trees were planted and the Frenchified garden and benches were put in. (This was during the Francophile Porfirio Diaz regime when the French style was all the rage.) And ever since then it's been the social center of the town. It's where everybody meets everybody.

And this, of course, is the problem. Handicapping requires solitude and concentration. I simply know too many people who pass through the Jardin each day, and unfortunately, I am not anti-social.

Someone once remarked that if an earthquake one day swallowed up the Jardin and everyone in it, the U.S. Social Security system would be back in the black again, saved from the dire failure so reliably predicted for it.

Yes, they are there, the old gringos in the cool of the morning warming themselves in the sun. They are there in the heat of the afternoon, cornering the market on the benches in the shade. No wonder the young Mexicans call the Jardin "Jurassic Park."

The point is no serious handicapper can do his work there. There is too much social distraction. We must look at other alternatives.


Parque Juarez is the by far the largest park in San Miguel and not bad for handicapping. It was the brainchild of Doctor Hernandez Macias. While he was San Miguel's mayor he organized the city's purchase of three parcels of land to create the park, which was then opened in 1904.

As a doctor Hernandez Macias felt that the population of the town needed a place where people could exercise. Like me, he was a man who believed in "making a difference" and "giving back." But I doubt they will name a street after me.

Because of its size (about 10 acres), the park offers the handicapper what he needs. Once you get away from the bandstand, the basketball courts and the kids' playground, you can generally find a nice quiet bench for the solitude the quest for a winner requires.

The problem with Parque Juarez, of course, is Candelaria. Much loved by gardeners, but universally despised by handicappers because of the turmoil it creates in the park, this event pretty much rules out the first couple of weeks in February as a venue for our purposes.


I also tried the plaza in front of the San Antonio church. Maybe it's because I'm lazy and I happen to live in the colonia, but I believe it's because I love the place.

San Antonio used to be its own town, a sparsely populated suburb of San Miguel. And the plaza in front of the parish church was actually the zocalo for the town. I've seen a picture of it from around 1900 and it looks very much like what I just described the Jardin looking like in the 1700s – a dusty, dirt plaza featuring barefoot boys in sombreros with their mothers in front of a not-quite-finished church.

When San Antonio was later folded into San Miguel as a colonia, the plaza stopped being the zocalo and became simply a park in front of church. I love it – for reading; for sitting around eating a torta from the carnitas place on the corner of the plaza; for watching Mexican life pass by … but not for handicapping.

There are two reasons it doesn't work for handicapping: school children and weddings. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, both might be considered essential to the continuation of the human race. But you must admit that both are loud. And both can be rather disturbing when you're desperately looking for evidence that a 3-year-old colt can carry his speed the full mile and a quarter of the Derby.

There's a grade school adjacent to the plaza with a schedule which, however much I try to avoid it, uncannily corresponds to my visits. Every time I'm there it seems a whole generation of noisy muchachos is either arriving at, or getting out of, the school. Sometimes student activities spill into the plaza itself.

The other day a corps of just pre-teen girls worked on close order drills with only a few mistakes. Later in the week a drum and bugle band rehearsed their repertoire. A friend, after listening to this last with a strained look on his face, turned to me and asked, "What the hell are they playing?"
"I believe it's the National Anthem," I answered.
"Whose?" he asked.

I had no easy answer. But the incident caused me to surrender this, my favorite, San Miguel park for a less discordant, more accommodating handicapping site.


So, finally, I announce the most handicapping friendly park in town: Parque Guadiana. It's always been there and always been one of my favorites, but about two or three years ago, coinciding no doubt with the arrival of more and more SUV-owning gringos and chilangos, the park got a facelift.

"Community involvement" and a desire to "give something back" are surely the root causes of this effort, but I must say the result is very nice. New planting was done, benches put in and freshly painted and people bought fund-raising bricks with unabashedly sentimental messages on them celebrating or memorializing, their children, their spouses, Toller Cranston and, of course, their dogs. It's hard not to tear up reading these inscriptions, but don't let that spoil your visit.

The whole rehab took a while (this is Mexico after all) but it must be graded an unqualified success. The park is pretty; it's generally quiet; it's friendly, but not intrusively so. You can still tuck yourself away in a corner without being bothered.

The thing, however, that makes Guadiana the handicappers favorite is that it has the one advantage none of the other parks do – it has handicapping tables! And though the park designers might have conceived of them as chess tables and even went so far as to embed their tops with chess boards, they are there to serve the handicapper. There are four of them in the renovated park.

There I am able to spread out my Racing Form, my race result charts, my iPad with all the replays of the Derby prep-races I've downloaded and my Derby-handicapping, much-annotated notebook. You can't easily do that on a park bench.

So what have I learned? Have I picked the Derby winner yet?

Well, I've learned a lot about this year's contenders, but no, I haven't narrowed it down to one yet. Just as football coaches and batting instructors spend a lot of time "looking at tape," I watch a lot of replays of the important prep-races that lead up to the Derby.

I'm going to ask you to watch two – the Santa Anita Derby and the Arkansas Derby. The top two finishers in each race will undoubtedly be among the favorites for the Derby. After you watch these races I'll ask you some questions. Depending on how you answer, you may already have your Derby pick.


Both the Santa Anita and Arkansas Derbys are a mile and an eighth. So these horses will have to go an extra eighth of a mile in the Derby. Here are my questions:
1. In the Santa Anita Derby, Game Winner ran four horses wide throughout the race thus losing a lot of ground. If he had been closer to the rail do you think he would have saved enough ground to beat Roadster?
2. On the other hand, Roadster started into the stretch 8 lengths behind before coming on to win. Which of those two horses do you think will benefit most by the Derby's extra eighth of a mile?
3. In Arkansas, Omaha Beach was able to get the lead before coming into the stretch. Improbable came at him all down the stretch and yet was never able to pass him. Did you get the impression that it didn't matter how far they ran, that Improbable was never going to pass Omaha Beach?
4. Of the four horses – Roadster, Game Winner, Omaha Beach and Improbable – who did you think ran the most impressive race?


I answer that last question with Santa Anita's winner – Roadster. But, of course, I wasn't there, and I certainly didn't ride the horses. But here's the interesting thing: the jockey Mike Smith did.
"Money Mike" Smith rode the winners of both races.
With the Derby only two weeks away, he has had to make a choice between the two.
He picked Omaha Beach. So what do I know?


Audax Minor II is the pen name of a writer who divides each year between here in San Miguel, and a small town (pop. 400) in southern Ontario, Canada. Now retired, he travels to racetracks all over the world (four continents so far, hoping to add a fifth this year). He grew up in the Midwest of the United States and made his living as a writer for 35 years.

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