It could have been yesterday. That's how vividly defending Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves remembers his first cat race 15 years ago.
"Felipe wasn't the biggest or the strongest cat in town," he says, "but he was mine, and I was proud of him."
As a 12-year-old in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Castroneves coaxed Felipe to the top of a 5-meter pole quicker than three other cat trainers, winning his first race before a crowd of cheering neighbors.
"That day," he says, "I knew cat racing would always be a part of my life."
Shortly after moving to South Beach five years ago, Castroneves founded the Miami Fast Cats, one of nine sanctioned cat racing organizations in the country. The 2002 season opens April 1 and of course, Castroneves is the favorite.
"Racing is in my blood," he says. "Cars and cats."
The sport can be traces to late 15th-century Portuguese sailors racing cats up ships' masts for transatlantic fun and wagering. Legend says Pedro Alvares Carbal, the navigator who discovered Brazil, also pioneered the use of lures by nailing fish to his mast. Today, the national championship, El Copo do Cabral, is Brazil's most wagered upon annual event, with more than $400 million on the line."
The Cat Whisperer
Then benefits of cat whispering are disputed, but Castroneves swears by it. "I know how to psych them up," he says. "El Capitao likes salsa music, while Dallara and Cindrico prefer poetry. Cats are hard to motivate, but that's what separates pros from amateurs. It's all about knowing your animal. You have to listen to them before they listen to you."
Start From Scratch
1. Cat racing centers, "clusters," consist of four 5-meter poles covered with wool sisal rugs conducive to clawing. Lures are attached to thin ropes known as fe-lines that run through pulleys at the top of each pole. Trainers pull the fe-lines to advance the lures -- bells, fuzzy mice, fish (catnip was banned in 1982) -- enticing their cats to the top. Don't worry: the cats don't climb down. Trainers raise a ramp for them to descend.
Breed For Speed
2. In Brazil, opinions are like cats: Everyone has one. One widely held belief is that Brazilian shorthairs are the best climbers, but no matter the breed, size or age, all cats race in the same event, by the same rules. El Capitao (No. 3) is a 9-year-old American shorthair, rescued from a Miami animal shelter. "All of the cats we race are adopted," says Castroneves. "This sport is about saving these beautiful animals."
Fill 'Er Up
3. Castroneves is finicky when it comes to feeding his felines, dishing out a steady diet of fresh tuna. "I can tell when a cat's been eating canned food," he says. "It becomes sluggish, especially Cindrico." Castroneves even flies his cats to Indy Racing League events so he can train them year round. "Like my race cars, they are fine-tuned machines," he says, "and they must be pampered."
4. As in horse racing, cat trainers outfit racers in silk of team colors. "Your cat should make a statement," says Ronaldo Luiz N. de Lima. "The colors should say what he feels inside." Helio's cats wear the Brazilian flag, an honor bestowed on league champs. "El Capitao has 110 career wins," he boasts. "His best climb (a handheld 4.26) is less than a half-second off the world record (3.97)."
5. Pigeons, squirrels, cats of the opposite sex -- distractions can get the best of a racing cat's curiosity. That led Waldir Pereira (white pants), who's been cat training since 1963, to design cat blinders. But, as Eddie do Nascimento (kneeling) attests, putting headgear on a cat is easier said than done. "I've had my share of scratches to prove it," he says. "Cats do not enjoy wearing hats."
Cat Got Your Tongue?
Cat racing has worked its way into the English language. "Winning by a whisker," is obvious, but did you know "cat's pajamas" was coined in prewar Rio and referred to racing silks? Before the 20th century, trainers began races by releasing cats from canvas sacks or "letting the cat out of the bag." By the way, unscrambled, the name Helio Castroneves reads Oh lie, Cats never so. Figure it out.
John Toolan is a deputy photo editor for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.