Skinny, charming, rawhide-tough, the lady with the horses on these pages is the wearer of a crown which, for all its informality, nonetheless represents one of the most hard-won distinctions in the rough and tricky racing world. This year marks the third in the reign of Mrs. Deborah Rood Everitt as the queen of Mexican horse racing. A ruler who wears her crown extremely casually, puts on her lipstick without a mirror and who, by gigantic effort, wangled, angled and bought her way to the top of the racing heap in a country where businesswomen are suspect and peso-earning Americans a national dishonor, she is a paradox and paragon in one.
The name of Deborah is generally associated with placidity. So is the nickname "Debbie," by which Mrs. Everitt is known to friends and enemies alike, both of which she has in substantial number. But she is not a placid woman. She is the resolute dictator of one of the world's finest racing plants, as picturesque as Santa Anita, as fast as a Utah salt flat, as cheap as a penny arcade. Anybody who can afford to send a youngster away to school in the U.S. can afford to send a thoroughbred to Debbie's Hipódromo de las Américas, and feed it, train it and race it for a year. And if within the year his horse wins three cheap races, he'll be money ahead.
This pleasing prospect stems from two circumstances, both favorable to Americans. For one, Mexican feed and help are cheap (over-all upkeep on a horse at Del Mar: $450 monthly; at Debbie's: $65). Secondly, Debbie claims to put a higher percentage of the handle into purses than any track in North America (Jamaica 3.2%; Belmont 2.3%; Debbie 6.35%).
The proprietor of this felicitous establishment did not create it, though she has brought some order out of its once-bizarre management. When the track opened March 6, 1943, it was the brain child of a onetime Tiajuana waiter, promoter Bruno Pagliai, and a Wall Street speculator named Bernard E. Smith, who thought that the virtual shutdown of racing in war-rationed U.S. would mean a bonanza in Mexico. The opening day drew 43,805 spectators, including President Manuel Avila Comacho and Miss Deborah Rood, who had arrived from the U.S. five days earlier for a brief vacation. Her vast and enduring equine affections having been smothered for months in the States, Miss Rood sniffed deeply the scent of running horses in the crisp, clear Mexican air and promptly telephoned home to Wilmington. "Ship my horses and my Buick," she said. "This is heaven."
Though she had only won a single flat race in the States—on the closing day of the previous season at Pimlico—within a month she was in the winners' circle at El Hipódromo. For the next seven years she was in there from 27 to 32 times per season, a remarkably consistent record in the ups and downs of the racing trade.
But her affection for Mexico did not extend to the way the Hipódromo was then managed. As a class, horse owners are probably the most dissatisfied people on earth. As a woman who is utterly coherent in stating her displeasure, Debbie became unofficial spokesman for the complaining owners. Under her leadership, the breach with management widened. When things finally reached the point of stalemate, Debbie determined to buy the track.
Control then belonged to Swedish financier Axel Wenner-Gren, who had made substantial investments in Mexican enterprise, so Debbie hopped a plane to Stockholm. She was met by a limousine and whisked off to the Harlingen Castle where she astonished the wily Wenner-Gren with her knowledge of the Hipódromo's secret finances. Debbie, as she puts it, had come by them "in my own way." Three days later she was flying back to Mexico with a purchase option.
IT WAS A DEAL
A few weeks later, after a complete audit of the Hipódromo's books, she was back in Stockholm laying it on the line. She would pay $662,000 for 51% of the stock—38,000 shares. It was a deal.
A denouement to this deal reveals something of the guts contained in this 112-pound package that is Debbie Everitt. She knew that the track owed 750,000 pesos to banks, and she also knew that the directors might declare a dividend out of nonexistent past profits before she formally assumed control—a dividend she would then have to pay. She got a verbal pledge that this would not happen. But somehow, it happened and she was handed a further debt of 1,350,000 pesos. The total of 2,100,000 pesos translated into $252,000, not an overwhelming sum by U.S. track standards. But Mexico was then in a recession and Debbie had to earn it out of track income. To her it looked like $2 million. It took her nearly a year, but she took her beating and paid.
As of July 21 this year, she declared her own first dividend—five pesos a share. She was able to do this by skillful promotion which increased the betting 12% in her first year of operation. This past season set a new record of 1,435,500 pesos bet on a single day. This is important as 98% of the Hipódromo's income derives from its legal percentage of the betting.
When she became proprietor, Mrs. Everitt had what she calls the most unlucky day of her life. She had three winners in one afternoon and her detractors screamed bloody murder. Realizing the impropriety of her position and that she would have to give up her stable, she broke down and cried. Then, businesslike, she sold and gave away 19 of her 22 horses. One she kept is Teddy Haste, bred by Calumet Farms. She has owned him for 10 years. Last season as a frisky 12-year-old, Teddy won two for Debbie. In his best season he won 11 and placed 11.
Unlike many of her colleagues, Debbie had no horses to influence her yearly childhood. When she was born in Joplin, Missouri, April 25, 1909, she inherited through her mother a distant, kissin'-kin relationship to the duPont family of Delaware, and through her father, a vice-president of Hercules Powder Company, an economic relationship to the heart of the corporate family.
She was 14 when a schoolmate started riding lessons and asked Debbie to join her. Debbie went along but neglected to inform her family, an oversight that was automatically rectified a month later when her father got the bill. "We weren't on speaking terms for two weeks," Debbie recalls, "but then I took him riding and soon Dad was off to Virginia to buy a stable of hunters."
A CHANCE TO GROW
Dad did even better. He moved the whole family from their home in Wilmington, Delaware, to a near-by estate, Meadows-on-the-Brandy wine, at Chadds Ford, Pa., in the heart of the hunting country. Here there were stables and jumps and a chance for a young horsewoman to work and grow.
With Dad and duPont paying the bills, Debbie worked and grew with fervor. Except for such bothersome distractions as boarding school, which she soon managed to avoid altogether, Debbie schooled horses and showed them, maintaining a string of 20 to 30 at a time. She built up such energy and stamina that some years later in one afternoon at the Devon Horse Show she rode 17 of the 36 horses entered in the green hunter class.
This tour de force, however, is hardly to be compared to one which occurred last spring when her good friend and neighbor, Gen. Humberto Mariles, invited her to take part in one of his friendly little competitions, during which some of the best candidates for his world's champion Mexican jumping team participate. Debbie hadn't jumped a horse more than three or four times a year in 10 years, but she agreed to ride. As she approached the last jump, a photographer ran out in front of her to get a picture. She veered aside and was immediately confronted with a hazard which had been ruled too difficult for the competition. It is a run up a steep incline to a high platform, a hurdle and a water jump. Debbie nudged her horse, lifted herself and took the hazard without a fault. Reluctantly the judges disqualified her. She hadn't finished the prescribed course.
During the season, Debbie's day usally begins at 7 a.m. By that hour, she's in blue jeans out in the barns, which can comfortably stable 800 horses, talking with owners, her trainer Jim Duran and jocks, mentally noting leaking water faucets and hinges that need repair, and occasionally dipping into her purse for a 10-peso "advance" to a stableboy. She might stop in at the snack bar she built for the grooms or have a glance at the sweat house she put up for the jocks. Often she has coffee with her 65-year-old Negro stableboy, former jockey Leon Goines, who on the day he was to retire from riding at 63 rode her 12-year-old Teddy Haste to victory, thereby setting some kind of record. After a chat with clocker Ed Warneke she slips into her beige and brown 1954 Chrysler station wagon and drives to her offices adjoining the Jockey Club, which is already one of Mexico's most exclusive social institutions.
Behind the green drapes that separate her desk from a bar and kitchenette, she skins out of her jeans into a business suit and comes out ready to chain-smoke Raleighs and Luckies alternately through a morning of business. Half a dozen times an hour, when the answers aren't sticking to her finger tips, she calls out, "Hey, Doc," and from the next office, far larger than her own, comes tall, striking 45-year-old General Manager Dr. Arturo Milhe, a Mexican-born, U.S.-educated dentist who forsook his prosaic though profitable profession for racing.
It is Doc Milhe who supplies managerial genius and, perhaps more important, the oil for troubled waters. Because she usually wants things her way—right now—Debbie had little difficulty, when she first took over, in alienating the easygoing Mexicans. Swank Jockey Club members found her blue jeans an insult. The Racing Commission declared she was trying to usurp their prerogatives. The Horsemen's Association said she refused to entertain their proposals. The union leaders discovered her going over their heads, taking her problems directly to her 662 employes. In each case, Doc stepped in quietly and explained the facts of life to Debbie and the facts of Debbie to her antagonists.
HURRAY FOR EVERYBODY
With the new-enterprise jitters now over, Debbie is entering her third season steadied down and barely remembering her brash past. She has a high regard for the labor leaders, a healthy respect for the Racing Commission. As for the horse owners, she says blandly, "Why, I love to have their suggestions. I need them. I've been an owner, too, you know."
Nevertheless, Debbie has problems. The Mexican Government has a protect-the-poor-people type of anti-gambling tradition. Though her franchise runs until 1968, Debbie knows it exists only at the pleasure of President Ruiz Cortines, a puritanical type aptly described by one of his senators as "a man who is against everything a little bit." If it becomes politically expedient the track might be closed down overnight.
On the other side is the stimulation it gives to Mexican horse breeding. In 1943 there were no Mexican-bred thoroughbreds. Now there are 100 colts a year and Mexican-bred horses are beginning to win races in the U.S. This impresses the government, but even more so does the track's potential as a U.S. tourist attraction. Good honest horse racing is an extra and valuable asset which no government would be foolish enough to shut down except for a major scandal.
Debbie has taken out the best scandal insurance she can buy. She installed a $30,000 movie patrol and every race is recorded on film from start to finish. She put up a $15,000 test barn where every winner is subjected to telltale urine tests for tampering. She sees to it that the stewards, some of whom used to wander in for lunch and leave after racing started, are on duty and monitoring every race.
It would be wrong to say that Debbie Everitt has overcome all the suspicions with which she was viewed when she first took over El Hipódromo; she is still the target of many detractors. But whatever her enemies may say of her, not one of them denies she is a horsewoman. When the first of her two daughters (ages seven-and-a-half and six) was about to be born, she was in blue jeans around the barns as usual. As she passed, her stableboy hinted to a visiting Texan that Debbie was going to have a baby and was promptly bet 500 pesos it was nonsense. The next morning Deborah II arrived, and three days later Deborah I was back in the paddock.
When somebody observed that this was indeed remarkable, a nonplussed detractor snorted, "Huh. That Debbie. She just ain't human. She didn't have a child. She foaled."