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16TH April 2020

Cuba - Havana Culture - Timeless - Timely

Shelter(ed) Day 15 – Back to Havana


Chapter 15- And… they’re Off!

Illustration- Wide shot of the Grandstand and horse race- Ermitas Blanco. Havana.

It didn’t take long for Finn and Jorge to get a date with Mr. Lansky. The invite was sitting on Finn’s entry table when he returned to the Riviera suite. The entryway was lined with chic shopping bags filled with the best cigars, tropical flowers, his favorite rum, Panama hats, chocolates, Rox jewelry and every other Cuban nicety from the hotel gift shops in town. The note on his writing desk simply said “Compliments of the Riviera Management”, which he knew by now meant the same guy who ran the Nacionale, The Tropicana Tables, and of course the Orient Park Racetrack. 

 

December Grand Jubilee

Orient Park, Marianao

Until sunset

Racing, Gaming, Boxing

Under the Stars

Dinner & Dancing to Music 

by Mr Frank Sinatra

Your Host; The Havana Tourism Commission

Meyer Lansky was such an unassuming mobster, he didn’t even have a nickname. Slight in stature, he looked more like an accountant than a boss. Yet he’d single-handedly set up the mob business in Havana, from hosting the “Commission” at the Nacionale in [1937] to consulting Batista in “cleaning up the gambling and vice” under the auspices of the Havana Tourism Commission, which allowed him to clean house and rewrite the rules in his favor. He was part of starting the Bank that financed all the hotel construction in town [BancoCuba]. He controlled the action at all of the major hotels, save the Capri, which was the domain of the Trafficantes. He owned the Riviera outright. Orient Park was under his control, as well. 

He was the biggest shark in Havana. In perhaps the littlest body.

Finn knew most of that already; it was both an honor and a fright to be invited by the most powerful man in Havana. What he didn’t know was who had been waiting for him while he was out “marlin fishing”.

As he turned the corner to the master bedroom, on the way to a well deserved shower, he caught a glimpse of the intruder just before she saw him.

The invitation he’d been fingering dropped to the floor. His pants followed.

Genette was wearing the creamiest white silk teddy, set against her cocoa-tinged skin and almond eyes. Her red lipstick revealed a perfect white toothy smile with a melting “come hither” look.

They spent the afternoon in each other’s arms, using the “intermissions” as chances to talk about the world (of the 1950s), dreams, and life in general.

“You know I’m actually from 2017,” he finally shared.

“Of course you are, darling. Now, kiss me some more,” she said, slinging her long leg over his thigh.

It was late afternoon when Finn finally got to his shower and Genette got up to dress for the trip to Marianao. She had chosen a simple yet elegant Halston gown and outfit from the Riviera Salon; at this point, Finn’s account at the hotel was virtually without limits. The stylist would be up shortly to do her hair and makeup; she wanted to make Orient Park well before the last race so that she could rehearse with “Frank” and get familiar with the venue.

Finn was ready in his tux, relaxing in the main salon when she emerged from the makeup chair and floated down the hall to him.

“All ready for some racing?,” she asked seductively.

“Giddyup.”

They were soon on their way to Orient Park in the Riviera Cadillac and a driver.

Finn and Gennette pulled into the Marianao just before sunset, the car directed to the private paddock where Frank had set up his dressing room and where Meyer was holding court with the trainers. The sounds of the final rounds of the boxing match brought intermittent cheers from the crowd, a very different sound than the constant bettor’s screams during a horse race.

In its heyday, American owners had brought their horses to race at Oriental Park Racetrack during the winter. With a traditional public grandstand and a seperate, more posh “club” building, Orient could handle crowds of 15,000 people comfortably.  American celebrities on vacation or performing at the nearby Tropicana Club visited often, and sometimes in between sets. In 1950, it had a sole monopoly on horse racing in Havana. 

And right behind the rich owners were the best horse trainers any stable could wish for: Laz and Luis Barrera, Pancho Martin and Gilbert Puentes. The Barrera’s were masters of feeding the horses “uppers” for performance. Martin and Puente were usually good at running ringers, good horses disguised to run in weaker classes. And every jockey had to bet to make ends meet, so that every race was full of intrigue from every angle. 

That suited the owner of the track just fine; knowing that he could pull any number of strings before a race to ensure the house won was something Meyer loved about the track. It made boatloads of money. So inviting 1,000 guests for dinner and an open bar was an easy thing. Even paying Frank’s fee didn’t bother him; he’d still rake $1,000,000 or more for the night from Orient. 

But he had to square up with the trainers and the jockeys to ensure it. These guys were always stabbing each other’s backs; the jockeys were even worse. Meyer had to make it clear that big races like this were to appear close, but under no circumstances should the house lose in the feature race. No monkey business here. Not tonight. 

The trainers returned to their mounts, Genette and Frank made quick work of their rehearsal, and Jorge slipped in secretly to join them all. Meyer made his way toward them.

“Follow me. We need some privacy,” he said. 

Jorge was nervous but Finn was finding himself surprisingly relaxed. Jorge picked up on that, and appointed him “negotiator” for the evening. It was an obvious choice, for all Jorge’s Latino suave, Finn had real game when it came to reading people and negotiating. 

The owner’s balcony was fitted out like an elegant living room, with palms, ferns, sofas and tables floating above the track and overlooking the sea. It was cleared out for Meyer and his guests in order for them to talk. But there was no small talk. 

As they sat down, the track announcer broke the silence: “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us on another sublime evening at Orient Park. Our feature race will go off in a little bit. But in the meantime, please enjoy Marianao’s own Genetta performing with Mr. Frank Sinatra, star of the recent MGM movie, ‘Guys and Dolls.’”

“Thank you very much folks. If’ you’ve seen the movie, you already know I’m down here in Havana on a bet with Sky Masterson, and I have to be back in New York City by tomorrow!  But in the meantime… Hit it for me, Snowball…”

They call you Lady Luck. 

But there is room for doubt 

At times you have a very unladylike way of running out 

You’re this a date with me 

The pickings have been lush 

And yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush 

You might forget your manners 

You might refuse to stay 

And so the best that I can to is pray.

Luck be a lady tonight 

Luck be a lady tonight 

Luck if you’ve ever been a lady to begin with 

Luck be a lady tonight.

Then, Frank and Genetta did a few duets together before the band broke into the instrumental for Havana from Guys and Dolls, which ended in the trumpet call to the final race. 

The last of the eight horses in the race were loaded into the gate by the handlers. The Barrera Horse, “Superman” in purple and green silks, was jockeyed by Raynel. He was abreast of “Jazmin” with Pepe in his pink and blue silks. In Gates 1-3 were “Chico Calling,” “Carmen’s Miranda” and “Dezi’s Dream.” Gates 5 6-8 were filled with “Marti,” “Ybor,” and “Manana Mama.”

 [Superman] was super jacked with amphetamines and could hardly contain himself before the gate opened. Jazmin was calm as could be, a legitimate ringer two classes above the field that Pancho had renamed and snuck in from Miami earlier that day. As if the owners and the trainers weren’t crooked enough, the jockeys had their own betting racket to themselves, in an effort to supplement their meager wages.

Before the gates opened, Meyer took advantage of the brief silence and turned to Finn.

“You know, I could have you killed by midnight and save myself $4,900,000,” he began. 

“And my partners would come back from the future and wipe out of every property you control. By dawn,” Finn coolly countered.

And they’re off!

“It’s an ugly start out of the gate, with Horse #2 stumbling badly.  [Superman] bolts to the lead like he’s been shot out of a cannon folks, followed by…”

Finn took the long silence to read the body language of his counterpart. Body in a compact pose. Lower lip white and pursed against his lower teeth. Pupils dilated. 

Finn knew he had the edge, Meyer was feeling some nerves.

“Into the clubhouse turn, it’s getting bumpy behind the leader. Superman has the field by a half-length, with 2,3,6 close behind. Jazmin is [four] lengths off the lead but moving effortlessly…”

“So,” Lansky finally said, “You’re the time traveller I’ve been hearing about.”

“Maybe, but I’m not the only one. And we have sixty years of innovation in our back pockets.” He whipped out his iPhone and scrolled through a few features that didn’t require WiFi. Meyer’s jaw dropped.

The announcer continued: “Into the back stretch, Superman looks like a freight train on rails, but he’s getting washed out from all the exertion. [Raynel] is not even pushing him. Jazmin goes a bit wide and floats by #6, then #3, then #2 with ease…”

The crowd began to roar, covering the audible details of Meyer and Finn’s conversation.

“So… maybe we can come to an accomodation?”

“I’m listening.” 

I’ll give you $1,000,000 in local currency and $500,000 credit at my tables,” said Lansky. “A suite at the Riviera and one of my mansions in Vedado — with staff. Five hundred hectares of cane fields in [Vinales]. In exchange, you wipe out the Gran Prix chit and take a wiseguy on one of your time trips.”

The announcer again: “… they’re into the final turn, Superman passes the mile pole in [xx.00], a track record. Jazmin is on his hip to the outside running smoothly. No other horse is in site, the rest of the field will fight it out for Place. And into the final stretch they come!”

“Almost good,” said Finn. “But I want US Dollars. And I want protection. And a no-touch guarantee for any of my gang, from any of yours. Then I’m good.”

The announcer blasted over the course speakers once more. “As they approach the finish,[Raynel] senses the race slipping away and glides outside to force [Pepe] to go even wider. Jazmin has all the juice and gains a meter in every stride. At the finish, it’s Jazmin winning, with an exhausted Superman for the show and [#6] to place, six lengths back!”

“It’s done. Lefty will see to the details. Enjoy Havana,”Meyer said, getting up to leave. “By the way, did you bet?”

“Of course. Jazmin is my horse.”

~~

Prefer to read the whole Book One? Here is the Table of Contents, with links.

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