Let’s Go Horse Racing

There's more here than watersports and beach games. Marlon Miller discovers how horse racing, the sport of kings, has taken hold in the Caribbean

–David Seale leads in his victorious Sandford Prince after the 1992 Cokspur Gold Cup in Barbados. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerPhotograph by Eleanor ChandlerPhotograph by Eleanor ChandlerPhotograph by Harold PrietoPhotograph by Harold PrietoThe coveted Cockspur Gold Cup, reflecting the Garrison Savannah track in Barbados. Photograph by Eleanor Chandler

Horse racing has a long and rich tradition in the Caribbean; the sport is a major money-spinner in several of the islands, with a keen and knowledgeable following. Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago head the list in the English-speaking Caribbean; Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are the main Spanish- speaking centres, while Martinique is the one French territory which has racing on an established basis. Galloping hooves are heard somewhere on the island tracks every month.

Puerto Rico is the busiest of all, with racing three days a week (Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) and sometimes four, at the beautiful modern ‘El Nuevo Comandante’ track in Canovanas. Last December Puerto Rico hosted the 24th Clasico Internacional del Caribe, the richest and most prestigious race in the region. The Clasico is for native-bred three-year-old horses from members of the Caribbean Racing Confederation, which includes mainland countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Panama and Colombia as well as Caribbean states.

This year’s Clasico will be held in December in Venezuela, at La Rinconada, another breath-taking track high in the mountains outside Caracas. The 1991 race, run over 1,800 metres, offered a first prize of US$153,000, with a total purse of $255,000. A big crowd turned out to watch the pride of Puerto Rico, Vuelve Candy B, take on the foreign challengers; but Rio Chemita from Venezuela blazed around the track in near-record time, and–to add insult to injury-was followed over the finish line by compatriot Landrea, beating the local favourite into third place.

Puerto Rican racing has been under way since the early years of this century; the island’s riders are well known to North American racing fans, for leading Puerto Rican jockeys have made a name for themselves in the United States. Perhaps the greatest is Angel Cordero, who is spoken of as a. god in his homeland and has chalked up over 7,000 victories. Condero’s achievements on the American circuit, where he has won just about every big race including the Kentucky Derby, have encouraged others to follow in his bootprints, and Spanish is almost the first language now in many jockey rooms from Florida to California and New York.

Some horses bred in the United States and shipped to Puerto Rico have made the return trip to enjoy tremendous success back home. Bold Forbes, known as the Puerto Rican Rolls Royce, got his start at the old El Comandante track and went on to win the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, two legs of the illustrious American Triple Crown, in 1976. The other islands do not have quite the same glittering facilities as El Comandante, but they have just as much interest. And while Puerto Rican racing is supplemented with American stock, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica import horses from the former mother country, Britain. Many an English and Irish-bred racer has established a strong reputation in the Caribbean sunshine and then gone on to the breeding sheds to plant new roots in a new home.

One horse mentioned with awe by turfites in Barbados and Trinidad is Mentone, an English-bred who scorched the tracks in these islands in 1959 and 1960, and is still referred to as the best import ever seen in these parts. Mentone enjoyed an avid following in both islands, whose sportsmen have maintained an intense racing rivalry for more than 40 years; horses have been regular travellers between the two, first by boat and now by air.

And it is not only four-legged species which have built up their fan clubs. Leading Barbados jockeys like Challenor “Chally” Jones and Venice “Pappy” Richards have made Trinidad their second home during their campaigns in the saddle, while Trinidadian Emile Ramsammy, now racing in Canada, is a well-known figure at the Garrison Savannah in Barbados.

Ramsammy has scored many memorable triumphs there, not least in the Cockspur Five-Star Gold Cup, which since its inception in 1982 has gained the reputation of being the biggest sporting event in the Eastern Caribbean. Sponsored by the rum distilling company Hanschell, Inniss Ltd., the Cockspur, held in March, attracts over 20,000 Barbadians and foreign visitors to the picturesque Garrison Savannah to see the island’s leading thoroughbreds, both imported and native-bred (creoles), tackle horses from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Martinique. The generous sponsors and the Barbados Turf Club, which has three racing seasons spaced throughout the year, have turned this race into a big national event, with marching bands and dancing girls highlighting pre-race parades, and it is awaited with tremendous anticipation.

In recent years, the winner’s purse of Bds$60,000 and a huge gold cup have become almost the private property of popular Barbadian businessman David Seale, whose English-bred Sandford Prince has won it three times in the last forty years (1989,1991,1992), to the vociferous delight of the home crowd. And with his triumph in the eleventh running of the Cockspur last March, jockey Venice Richards has now ridden four Cockspur winners: three times with Sandford Prince, and once with Bentom, also owned which won by Seale, which won in 1986.

While the Garrison Savannah is packed to capacity for the Cockspur, another Savannah, the Queen’s Park in Trinidad, also comes alive for their Blue Riband event, the Royal Oak Trinidad Derby, on Republic Day, September 24. Here the leading West Indian- bred three-year-olds compete for over TT$250,000 in the country’s most popular racing attraction, sponsored by another long-established firm of rum-makers, the House of Angostura, blenders of the world-famous Angostura Bitters.

As one local racing official said, having travelled far and wide to witness the running of the Derby in England, Kentucky and France: there is no, better place to see it than at the Queen’s Park Savannah, a sugar plantation in years gone by and now almost 200 acres of tree-lined grass on the edge of Port of Spain, with the majestic hills of Trinidad’s northern range as a backdrop.

The Queen’s Park Savannah has hosted racing since the early 19th century; the Trinidad Turf Club, recently amalgamated into the Trinidad Race Club, has presided over the action since 1897, and holds meetings in June/July, September, and a Christmas meeting in December/January .

There is also racing at Santa Rosa Park, built in 1960, near Arima in eastern Trinidad, and at Union Park, another lovely track, at Marabella near the southern city of San Fernando. Union Park, established in 1922, hosts racing in the early months of the year, February to April, when the Savannah is occupied with Carnival, and again in October, while Santa Rosa Park has meetings in May, August and November.

Rum-makers may be the major sponsors of racing in Barbados and Trinidad, but a beer has been associated with the sport in Jamaica over the years. Red Stripe Beer lends its name to the Red Stripe Weekend at Caymanas Park in November, when Jamaicans invite jockeys and horses from Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. There is a jockeys’ championship, as well as the running of the Red Stripe Caribbean Sprint Championship and the Red Stripe Superstakes, both rich events for creole horses; the former is run over 1,200 metres and the latter over 2,000.

Jamaican racing, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, is run left-handed and on dirt at Caymanas, like Puerto Rico, while Barbados and Trinidad go the other way around on turf tracks. The host country has ruled the roost in the Red Stripe events, though Trinidad’s Baree Bahin, who was conceived in the United States, scored a big upset in the 1987 Superstakes. Although following the American style of racing, the Jamaicans have retained some traditions of their former rulers: the St Leger, the oldest classic on the English turf, is the final event in their Triple Crown.

There are several large farms in Jamaica, and the Select and Annual Thoroughbred Yearling Sales are also a big part of the Red Stripe Weekend. With the high rate of exchange of the pound sterling, the Jamaicans, like their Trinidadian counter parts, are now obtaining most of their imported bloodstock from the United States, where prices have dropped considerably since the boom days of the early 1980s.

But wherever the horses come from, they provide thrills and excitement for thousands of brightly-clad spectators in these beautiful, sunlit surroundings. So–let’s go racing! •