Mary Schoenfeldt won't be giving us the Kentucky Derby winner this year. Mary, the ex-nun who married a horseplayer and became a talented handicapper in her own right, died Sunday in a Niles nursing home, after a long decline brought on by Parkinson's disease and dementia.
Mary was a former schoolteacher, and every year around this time she made a chart "grading" each of the Derby entrants. The method pointed her to ten winners. I told her story in the Reader in 2003, when she picked Empire Maker (who finished second), and in my book Horseplayers: Life at the Track.
Empire Maker was Mary's last Derby selection. By the next year she'd grown too frail and confused to live at home, so she and her husband, Creighton, moved into a nursing home. They were an unlikely couple: she went to church every day, while he went to the track. He spent every penny he could scrape together on the horses; when she won a handicapping contest at Hawthorne Race Course she donated her prize money to charity. But Creighton, who often said, "If I lost Mary, it'd be like losing my right arm," gave up his trips to Hawthorne and Arlington to care for her.
I visited them a few times, and read to Mary from another book I was writing, about a trip around the Great Lakes. Always the teacher, she made astute comments about the style, and the rhythm of the prose. But when I was finished she asked in her tiny voice, "When are you going to get to the part about the horses?"
On Saturday, May 5, around 5 PM, I'll wish she were still here to tell me who's going to win the Derby.