Triple Crown fever didn't end with American Pharoah's triumphant Belmont Stakes on June 6. At least not for all North American racing fans.
On Saturday at the Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City, Mexico, a 3-year-old colt named Huitlacoche, owned and bred by Mexico's leading stable Cuadra San Jorge, bids to become that country's seventh Triple Crown winner and the first since 2002. He goes postward as the heavy favorite in the 69th running of the Derby Mexicano, a 1 1/8-mile fixture that's attracted a field of six.
A son of the Unbridled stallion Free Thinking produced from Sonora Cat, by Tabasco Cat, Huitlacoche breezed through the first two legs of the series: the Stakes Jockey Club Mexicano on May 2 (Kentucky Derby day) and the Gran Premio Nacional on May 23. He's won six of nine lifetime starts and is 3-for-3 this year. All three races in the Triple Crown and all of Huitlacoche's starts have come at Codere-owned Hipodomo de las Americas, a modern racetrack-casino located in the heart of a city that has nearly nine million inhabitants, making it North America's largest.
Racing from Mexico City became more accessible for simulcast players with the recent announcement that its management has signed a deal with Roberts Communications Network to carry the track's signal, making it available to other tracks and advance deposit wagering companies worldwide.
Why would American racetracks or ADW companies be interested in importing a signal from Mexico City?
For starters, since 1970, there has been a nearly 600 percent increase in the Hispanic population in the U.S., according to Pew Research, most of that fueled by immigration from Mexico. The horse industry, like many others, has seen a dramatic shift in both a participation level and its labor force from Mexico. There is a large potential audience north of the border.
Then there is the fact that the method of operation of the Mexico City track and its racing program is very similar to that of its American counterparts. It was, after all, built during World War II when some U.S. tracks were closed, so many horses and horsemen shipped to Mexico City when the track opened in 1943.
The track has had some ups and downs throughout its history, even closing for several years just before the turn of this century. It offers good, competitive racing, with Thoroughbreds competing on Friday and Saturday, and Quarter horses running on Sunday. Though purse levels are poor, the move to broaden distribution of its simulcast signal can only help Hipodromo de las America strengthen its economics going forward.
“This (the Roberts Communications Network deal) is an exciting move for our company,” said Ramon Rionda, vice president of racing for Codere, the gaming company based in Madrid, Spain, that owns Hipodromo de las Americas and other racetracks in Latin America. “Our racing universe is expanding on an international basis, so it's incumbent upon us as a business to share our signal worldwide.”
The agreement with Roberts is one of several announcements Cordere has made in recent months related to the expansion of its tracks' commingled simulcast signals into North and South American racing countries.
“Being able to send simulcast signals internationally will also benefit our horsemen with a potential for increased revenue through purse enhancements,” said Sergio Alaman GM of Hipodromo de las Americas.
Codere also reached an agreement with InCompass, the international arm of Equibase's data collection and dissemination system. Equibase provides past performances, among other data, for the racing industry in North America.
I had the opportunity to visit Hipodromo de las Americas as a guest of Codere on the last weekend of May when the track presented the Longines Handicap de las Americas, annually Mexico's biggest horse race.
That Handicap was won by Diamante Negro, a 5-year-old Mexican-bred by Irish-bred Election Day, a long-fused son of Sadler's Wells. Diamante Negro brought great pride to Mexico's Thoroughbred community in December 2013 when he defeated the best of Latin America in the annual Classico Del Caribe at Panama's Presidente Remon racetrack. His victory in the 2015 Longines Handicap de las Americas played out on a national television broadcast and a jam-packed racetrack that included Mexican pop stars, and popular actors and actresses like Diana Bracho and Fabiola Campomanes.
The first thing I noticed when I settled down for a day of racing there is how comfortable I felt handicapping the races at the Hipodromo de las Americas. Track programs and past performance information are laid in virtually identical fashion to Equibase, Daily Racing Form or Brisnet. There's not much of a learning curve.
Distances of races over the seven-furlong dirt track are expressed in furlongs, and races are written U.S.-style: maidens, maiden claiming, claiming, allowance, etc.
The grandstand is modern and comfortable with creature comforts for customers at every level of the economic spectrum. A ground level casino includes a simulcasting center that imports races from both North and South America. A traditional grandstand has ample seating and food and beverage services. Private suites with sweeping views of the racetrack are individually decorated to suit the tastes of their owners. A private Jockey Club, with indoor and outdoor dining, was bustling to the brim on the day of the Longines Handicap del las Americas. On the Friday twilight program I attended, the Jockey Club hosted a crowd of young, after-work professionals, many of them seemingly more interested in eating and drinking than betting.
All levels of the track were clean, well-lit and family friendly.
There weren't many two-turn, distance races on the two programs I witnessed, owing in part to the high elevation of Mexico City. When I walked up hills or stairways, I was left gasping for air in a city situated 7,382 feet above sea level. And to think this was the home of the 1968 Summer Olympics. I would think it's tough on the horses to race over long distances of ground at that altitude.
The horses that compete at the Hipodromo de las Americas are stabled in modern two-story barns built in 2000. That's when a large parcel of land overlooking the racetrack was developed into what is now the Centro Banamex Convention and Exposition, which can accommodate 50,000 people, making it one of Latin America's largest. An amusement park with water slides is located on the other side of the stables
The barns are built into hillsides, making the upper and lower levels easy for horses to move in and out without the need of ramps They are bright, airy and comfortable. Total stabling is for 1,400 horses. Training costs are approximately $500 per horse monthly, less than $20 a day.
Rionda said Codere's vision for the track is to create a multi-faceted entertainment center that eventually will include a concert stage (currently under construction) in the infield, a major hotel that would bridge the gap on the clubhouse turn between the convention center and racetrack/casino, and shops and restaurants similar to those surrounding Gulfstream Park in South Florida.
Prize money remains the biggest challenge, since casino revenue is kept separate from racetrack operations. The purse for Saturday's Derby is 210,000 pesos, which converts to approximately US$13,700. Many races carry a purse of 23,000 pesos, or U.S$1,500. Purses that low make it difficult to justify the purchase of racing prospects in the U.S., so many of the races are filled with Mexican-bred horses who descend from American or European bloodlines. About 250 Thoroughbred foals are registered each year in Mexico.
It's a work in progress, but things are moving in the right direction. The track will be jumping on Saturday when trainer Samuel de la Rosa Lopez puts the saddle on Huitlacoche to see if he can add his name to the list of previous Mexican Triple Crown winners Plucky Flag (1946), Re-Torta (1949), Cachaca (1966), Gran Zar (1979), Picotazo (1980) and Dominican (2002).
It's a race that may be coming to a simulcast parlor or ADW signal near you.
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