On the outskirts of boom-town Panama City, past tin roof houses and enterprising food vendors with their roadside stands, past soccer players who practice diligently in the cooler morning hours, Panama's only racetrack hums.
The rhythms of the backside rise and fall the same at Hipodromo Presidente Remon as they do in any other country; high-hopes works and standard gallops for conditioning, loose horses careening toward the gap, trainers eying prospects and doling out directions, grooms doing up bandages, setting tack. The runners have names like Diamante Rubio, like Conqueto Del Ocho, but often boast bloodlines traced to familiar U.S. stallions or sons of U.S. stallions—Any Given Saturday, the A.P. Indy stud Indy Vidual.
This week life around the little oval has been a little more energetic, a lot more diverse. The Clasico del Caribe series—a two-day event which over the years has featured the best contenders from Puerto Rico, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Guatemala—is back.
Eleven of the top horses in the Caribbean confederation will head postward on Dec. 15 for the 1 1/8-mile event, hosted by Panama for the fifth time since its founding in 1966. Venezuelan runners have won the past four years, a remarkable streak, but this season's group may be in tough to repeat against a runner who holds a universally familiar position: Mexico's Diamante Negro, the buzz horse.
How can a runner be so talked-about for a country that has not won the Caribe since 1995? Simple: he's just that good. With four straight victories, three of them grade I events in that country including a 8 3/4-length romp in the Clasico Criadores Mexicanos in July and a handy 1 1/4-length victory last time out Oct. 13 at the Caribe distance, the son of the Sadler's Wells stallion Election Day looks to overcome the difficulties that have stymied contenders produced by his country in the past. And how good is "that good?" Ask one of his countrymen.
"Diamante Negro is Mexico's best horse in this generation," said Mexico-based trainer Fausto Gutierrez, who does not condition the Caribe contender but brought three horses to run in other series events. "I think we have a big opportunity. A long time ago, Mexico won this race. Since then, we've had seconds and thirds, but after 18 years I have confidence that this horse will give us a very good chance to win. In Mexico he's seven, eight, 10 lengths better than all the rest."
The Venezuelans, however, have a score to settle amongst themselves and a budding legacy to continue. A 3-year-old championship title is on the line for Good Friend, a son of Bayou The Moon who won the first race in the Venezuelan Triple Crown, and also for Turkoni, a Marconi colt who edged him out in the ensuing two legs via nail-biting photo finish. Both come off dismal losses in the Oct. 27 Simon Bolivar (Ven-I), Good Friend a dismal 11th in the 1 1/2-mile event against older horses, Turkoni 13th. But Venezuelan pundits are hoping the cutback in distance and their country's history of dominance in this event will propel one of the two to a rebound.
"They are the two best 3-year-old colts, and that's why they're here representing Venezuela," said Jose Armao of Gaceta Hipica Magazine, the leading racing publication in that country. "Good Friend is a speed colt—he should take the lead—and Turkoni is a stayer who comes from behind. It's going to be tough for him. But if one of them wins this race, that horse will be 3-year-old champion, for sure."
Local hopes ride upon four runners: Coqueto Del Ocho, Ancrisman, Tomas Gabriel, and Jubilee Queen. The latter is a fleet-footed gray trained by prominent local conditioner Alberto Paz Rodriguez, the leading trainer at Presidente Remon. Champion 2-year-old filly in Panama last year, the daughter of Slaughter Beach trounced the boys in her last outing on Oct. 27 in stakes company at the Panama track, beating fellow Caribe contender Tomas Gabriel by three quarters of a length. She is a two-time grade II winner this year against her own division.
Jubilee Queen's trainer, known worldwide as "Droopy," has been saddling contenders in the Caribe for the past three decades, winning two editions with Leonardo (1992) and Barremina (1974). He looks to send out just the sixth filly to ever win the Caribe—the last was Bambera in 2009—and his runner gets an 8-pound weight allowance (110) over the boys (118).
"This filly has had a terrific campaign and at the same time, a little bit of bad luck," Droopy said. "She won two of the three legs of the Juvenile Triple Crown against fillies. She won the first race in the Triple Crown for fillies by six lengths, but they disqualified her. There was a little mess the last eighth of a mile where she switched leads and the filly next to her switched leads, and they bumped a little.
"The jockey (Luis Arango) was suspended for her next race, and he didn't ride her. We put another guy up, but he didn't fit - and she only missed by a head. The next races (the grade II in August, and a Sept. grade II), she won in such good time, and so convincingly, I thought that she could beat the boys. So I put her in against the colts (on Oct. 27) and she beat them. She beat them very well."
In fact, Tomas Gabriel, the colt who was second to Jubilee Queen by three-quarters of a length last time out, was entered in the Caribe when his connections determined the runner-up finish an excellent effort against the top-notch filly. He had originally qualified for the sprint on the Caribe undercard instead.
Those who follow North American jockeys will note Ricardo Santana Jr., recently based at Churchill Downs
, in town to pilot Tomas Gabriel. Luis Contreras, who rides at Woodbine
, has flown in to ride another Mexican, Diamante Rubio.
Rounding out a trio of Mexican contenders is Crater, a speedster who could factor into the pace scenario. Puerto Rico also has two in the big event; Son De Goma
, 15 1/4-length winner of the Oct. 20 Antonio Fernandez Castrillon Stakes (PR-I) on Oct. 20, and Reddish Thunder
, a distant third of four in that event.
The way the track is playing will likely factor into the outcome of the main event; it is typically a deep, cuppy surface, testing on imports who are used to pavement-strip conditions in their native lands, and local runners are used to finding a solid route to victory in the middle and far outside. On Dec. 14, however—the first of the two-day Caribe series festivities—runners were finding a golden path to victory on the rail, and speed was holding extremely well for the early part of the card until mid-pack closers finally began to make up ground in a few late races.
Those who manage racing at Presidente Remon, of course, are pleased to welcome the Clasico back to Panama, where it was last held in 2011. Approximately $500,000 is directed to the track thorough the Minister of Tourism due to the event, and it brings a rush of income from additional wagering along with increased awareness of the value of the sport in Panama. A heightened international profile also goes hand-in-hand with the global mentality of Codere, the international gaming and pari-mutuel company that owns the license to practice racing here. And local horsemen jump at the opportunity to expand their connections while showcasting their finest stock.
"If you measure cost against benefit, this is probably one fo the best places in the world to race," Droopy said. "Maidens run for $10,500, the owner gets to keep clean $6,000, and the maintenance is $400 a month. So imagine, if you win one race it can pay almot a year of your upkeep.
"A lot of people are racing here from Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina. They're bringing very good horses to use this as a bridge. They'll test them here, and if they're good enough, they'll send them to California or New York or Florida, It used to be like that many, many years ago. A lot of Argentians, Chileans, and Peruvians came to race here, and the good ones were sold back to the States. It used to be like the Panama slogan says: 'Heart of the World, Bridge of the Americas.' That's what we are: the bridge of racing."