For lack of even a bronze medal for Mexico in the 2016 Rio Olympics, I am forced to go back memory lane and remember the sweet glories of yesteryear, namely 1948, when I was six years old. As old-timers rightly claim, the old days were better!
At the time the name of then Lieutenant Colonel Humberto Mariles and a horse known as “Arete” (Earing) thundered all over the nation as they won two gold and a silver medals in the London Olympiad. The same equestrian team of Mexican Army cavalry officials also earned bronze for team work.
During those years, Mariles and Arete became the magic couple. Both were revered in Mexico because at no moment Mariles separated his Gold medal feats from the horse he rode.
Yet neither came without controversy. Previous to the London Olympiad, Colonel Mariles was directly banned by then President Miguel Alemán Valdés from going to Europe. Yet by the time he was ordered to stay in Mexico, Mariles, already an international equestrian personality who had also attended as an observer the Berlin Olympiad of 1938, disobeyed President Alemán’s orders and as he and his team of men and horses were ready to ship out, they literally stole a convoy of army trucks and crossed the border into the port of Galveston, Texas, from where they boarded a ship to Italy, their first stop.
The reason President Alemán gave was that he could not allow a group of gallant Mexican soldiers travel to foreign contests with “a bunch of cart pulling horses nor one that’s only got one eye.”
This statement forced Mariles to decide that President Alemán knew nothing about horsemanship.
Besides Aleman’s ignorance of horse riding – he was the first civilian president of Mexico after the Revolution – Colonel Mariles was indeed the darling of the two former presidents, Lázaro Cárdenas and Manuel Ávila Camacho, who had been backing him up behind Aleman’s back. That was top level politicking at the time, and Mariles was right in the middle of it. And after his fleeing from Mexico, he knew that there was a court martial waiting for him when he returned, as he was planning to do.
By the time Mariles and his entourage got to Rome, about the only welcoming committee available to meet them was the Mexican ambassador to Italy, who asked them to go to Mexico or he would enforce an arrest warrant issued by the Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE).
Mariles, also an astute politician, spoke to the ambassador in Italy to let the Mexican team participate at least in the already programmed contest in Rome. Begrudgingly, the ambassador looked the other way for a couple of days and bingo, the Mexican team made the equestrian journalism headlines by winning not just the Rome contest, but a series of other competitions against la crème de la crème of European riders.
The arrest warrant was soon forgotten as the Mexican Equestrian Team headed for London. By that time Arete and Mariles had become one. They had met in January 1948 when Mariles was invited by the French Club in Mexico City to check out a 10-year old castrated one-eyed stallion the club wanted to sell. The club president, an equestrian, knew that the horse was good at jumping, and asked Mariles to ride it to try it out.
Mariles was shocked by Arete. He’d recall later that after two minutes on its back the horse was the smoothest and most obedient beast he’d ever ridden. A rough rider by training, Mariles put Arete to the toughest tests he could think of at the time. He paid 8,000 pesos (not devalued then) for the horse. He did not care the animal was a one-eyed jack.
Arete got his name because he was born in 1938 with a dented ear. Over the years he lost sight of the left side eye due to an inherited disease. When caring and cleaning it up, caretakers approaching it from the left side first talked to it softly to make their presence known, so that it would not get scared.
After he won the two gold medals in equestrian jumping competition, Lieutenant Colonel Mariles was extremely happy, drinking tea in their London inn, but he warned everyone that they were returning home and that he would most likely have to face court martial.
He was considering this when an official said he was wanted on the phone.
“Who’s calling me?” Mariles asked.
“President Miguel Alemán.”
Mariles got up in a hurry and in the military manner of speech of the Mexican soldiers he answered:
“At your command, Mr. President. This is Lieutenant Colonel Humberto Mariles speaking, sir.”
From the other side of the phone the President said:
“I hope you’re well, General.”
Two golds, a silver and bronze set Mariles apart from the pack.
This is just a summarized memory but, indeed, given the present circumstances, the old days were indeed better!
Arete passed away in 1952 after a failed surgery for a broken leg.
As for Mariles, he would spend five years in jail for killing a man in self-defense after a traffic incident. He died in the nefarious La Santé Prison in Paris, accused of heroin trafficking. He was apparently poisoned or strangled.
The death of Mexico’s glorious horse rider remains a mystery but Mexicans don’t remember him for his misadventures. They remember him for giving the country the feeling of glory an Olympic gold medalist instills upon a nation.