By Steve Haskin -
The strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared over the public address system, as jockey Carlos Mendez, aboard Gran Premio José Pedro Ramírez (Uru-I) winner Rock Ascot, stood up in the saddle, flung his arms up in victory, and tossed rose petals from the victory blanket in the air. The massive crowd at Maroñas Racetrack let out a mighty roar to salute the victors.
With the music still resounding throughout the track, the winning connections—owner, breeder, trainer, and jockey and their friends and families—were driven in antique automobiles to the makeshift winner’s podium on the track in front of the grandstand. Alongside the podium was a mounted military band in decorative uniforms and cascos (headgear) playing drums, bugles, tubas, and other instruments.
With the fans still applauding and taking pictures, the winners were presented their trophies. Standing along the rail, my wife and daughter and I were engulfed by the cheers, the music, and the on-track festivities. It was at this point that my daughter said, “All that’s missing are fireworks.”
Sure enough, seconds later, an explosion of fireworks from behind the podium lit up the darkening blue sky that had already become illuminated by the lights of the racetrack. It was a moment that was both spectacular and surreal—a fitting conclusion to a magical day that saw skydivers rain down on the racetrack carrying banners and flags. Several years ago, one skydiver actually landed on the back of a horse…on purpose. The spectacle of Ramírez day was obvious. The surrealism was due in part to the fact that we were in Uruguay.
Our trip, at the invitation of the Uruguayan Breeders’ Association, included visits to the Riviera-like resort of Punta del Este, where the rich and famous congregate each summer; the amazing Casapueblo, where nature and art meet to form a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and images nestled along Uruguay’s tranquil coastline; and the historic, charming town of Colonia, where you can see spectacular sunsets and the lights from Buenos Aires across the Rio del la Plata that sepa rates Uruguay and Argentina. Our home base, the capital city of Montevideo, has miles and miles of beaches that come alive each day with people jogging, walking, riding bicycles, and strolling with their dogs along the palm tree-lined Rambla.
It was at some point during the trip that it hit me. Everything I was experiencing was due to one horse. It was through my articles on Invasor and the contacts I had made in Uruguay that all of this was made possible.
I gave a 90-minute talk on Invasor to the media and racing officials at Maroñas, presented the trophy for one of the big stakes on Ramirez day, was interviewed by ESPN South America, had every want and need catered to, and, simply put, was treated like a rock star—all because of a horse.
With Thoroughbred racing in the United States going through perhaps the roughest time in its history, it is reassuring to know that the passion people around the world have for the sport and for the horse still is as strong as ever; even 6,000 miles away in a small country most Americans would have trouble finding on a map.
During Invasor’s career in the United States, I bonded with him as I’ve never bonded with any horse. But I never could have imagined how far that bond would take me. Because of this remarkable animal, I met many people in a faraway land that I now consider close friends. I discovered a new culture, new food, and a new, vibrant world of Thoroughbred racing that re-kindled the feelings I had for the sport back in the late 1960s, when all seemed so pure and innocent.
But most of all I discovered myself. Cloistered away in my home/office every day, I was reluctant to embark on such an adventure, and it was only after my wife’s constant urging that I finally capitulated. So, my self-discovery was due in great part to her.
Although I am back and immersed once again in the Kentucky Derby, I still think of Uruguay often and cannot remove that one thought from my head: it was all because of a horse. Perhaps those are words everyone in the industry should remember.Steve Haskin is Senior Correspondent for The Blood-Horse.