One of the best handicappers I know is an ex-nun who married a horseplayer. Mary Schoenfeldt goes to mass every day, but one afternoon a month her husband Creighton drags her to the racetrack. Creighton bets on horses 364 days a year and would do it 365 “if they were open on Christmas.” But this is not a source of friction in their marriage.

“I’m not his mother,” Mary says. “I don’t tell him not to go to the track, and he doesn’t tell me not to go to church.”

One Sunday during Lent, Creighton insisted his wife enter a handicapping contest at Hawthorne Race Course. Mary insisted on going to church first. The Cicero Avenue bus dropped her at the track less than an hour before post time. She studied her program briefly, looking for horses with a record of finishing first, second, or third. Mary–a 73-year-old who looks like a tiny version of Queen Elizabeth–likes horses that always give their best.

She filled out her entry, then sat down with a book of crossword puzzles and a devotional to pass the 25 minutes between each race. She bet $2 to show on each of her selections–“Creighton always says you’re supposed to get a winner, but at the last moment somebody else can get up there”–and recorded all her wagers on a square of notepaper. Every time she won a bet, she drew a smiley face next to it.

The handicapping contest covered six races. Mary picked five winners. (Read “Durbin’s Line” in the Tribune and let me know the next time he picks five winners in six races.) She split a $2,250 prize with two other canny handicappers.

At first, Creighton was apoplectic.

“She could have gone for the whole thing in a playoff!” he shouted. “She would have had an advantage because she’d have me helping her!”

Creighton had picked three winners that day. After a few minutes he calmed down–$750 was a lot more than he was leaving the track with–and soon he was roaming around the third floor of the Hawthorne grandstand boasting, “I’m so proud of my Mary.”

Mary gave much of the money away. At home she keeps a notebook full of charities, convents, and soup kitchens that depend on her donations. “If I just give $10 a month to each of them, it just comes to $3,000 a year,” she says. “That’s nothing compared to what people spend on the horses.”

Later, Creighton implored his wife to join him in a three-day-long handicapping tournament over Kentucky Derby weekend. She demurred: “I’d miss out on mass and communion and my holy hour,” she said.

But on the Thursday before the derby, Mary sat down at her dining room table to pick a winner in the year’s biggest race. When she was a nun she’d taught school, so with a ruler and a Sharpie she drew a grading chart for the 16-horse field. Along the left side, she wrote each horse’s name. Along the top she listed the qualities she looks for in a horse: good breeding, a talented jockey, a well-known trainer, a winning record.

“When you’re a teacher, let’s say you give an arithmetic test,” she says. “You’d have the kids’ names here and the scores here, so you can show the parents. There’s certain things I like to look at. They’re just things in my mind that could make up a good horse.”

Wherever a horse met her qualifications, she penciled in a faint check. The horse with the most checks would be her winner. Mary had never seen a copy of the Daily Racing Form until she married Creighton in 1986, but since then her charts have given A grades to ten Kentucky Derby winners: Ferdinand, Alysheba, Winning Colors, Sunday Silence, Unbridled, Lil E. Tee, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone, Real Quiet, and Fusaichi Pegasus.

This year Mary gave Empire Maker nine checks. All the wise guys at the Daily Racing Form were touting Empire Maker too. “He’s undoubtedly the best horse in the race,” the newspaper wrote. At Churchill Downs the track handicapper made the horse a 6-5 favorite.

“Here I am with this first- or second-grade way of doing things, and these people have computers, and we come up with the same thing,” Mary marveled.

On derby day she arrived at the track with a stack of letters to answer. It was going to be a long afternoon; the races started at noon, but the derby wasn’t until five. She and Creighton found seats in the handicapping center, which had two big-screen TVs for watching the races. Mary placed her bets early, then sat down to her correspondence. Creighton was absorbed in his tournament. Over the course of three days, his horses paid a total of $4.20.

At 5:08 PM, 16 horses sprang from the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Empire Maker broke slowly. Brancusi sprinted to the front of the pack and led for almost a mile. Empire Maker jogged along in eighth place until the horses reached the second turn. Then his jockey tapped him and he churned forward, wheeling past the struggling horses on the rail. He surged past Brancusi, Eye of the Tiger, Scrimshaw, Offlee Wild, Indian Express, and Domestic Dispute. At the top of the stretch, Empire Maker had two horses to catch. But it took all the colt’s heart just to chase down Peace Rules for second place. Funny Cide, the winner, was five strides ahead at the wire.

“That horse’ll never win another race,” a losing gambler predicted.

Mary watched through her bifocals. Her hands were folded on the table, and her pursed mouth did not twitch. She spread out her tickets. She had bet $5 to win, place, and show on Empire Maker. The horse paid $7.80 to place and $5.40 to show for every $2 wagered. But Mary is a cautious woman. She knows anything can happen in a horse race–“the horse doesn’t feel like running, or he has trouble getting out of the gate, or there’s a disqualification. My chart is utopia. It’s how they should run.”

So she’d also bet $2 to win, place, and show on the horse with the second highest number of check marks, Buddy Gil. She’d done the same with her third-best horse–Funny Cide. Funny Cide went off at 16-1 and paid $34.20 for every $2 bet to win. It’s not just how you pick your horses. It’s how you play them, too.

Mary totaled her earnings on a sheet of floral-print notepaper. She’d wagered $27 and collected $88.20.

Those people with computers–none of them had picked Funny Cide.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.