There are few things more appealing to me than going to a racetrack for the first time, especially if that track is in an out-of-the way place like Uruguay.
Yes, Uruguay, or it might be better said, “Si, Uruguay.” I came to this South American country as the guest of the Codere Group's racetrack division to see Tuesday night's Gran Premio Jose Pedro Ramirez, this country's most prestigious Group I race, one I am told was named in honor of the first president of the Jockey Club of Uruguay.
That race is at Hipodromo Nacional de Maroñas, the stately looking racetrack in the nation's capital city of Montevideo, home to more than one-third of Uruguay's 3.4 million residents. Maroñas is the track where Invasor became famous before Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stud acquired him, bringing him to North America, where a Horse of the Year campaign was capped by a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Invasor, who also won the Dubai World Cup, was elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 2013.
Invasor's sweep of Uruguay's Triple Crown came in 2005, just two years after Maroñas was brought back to life. The track, founded in 1888, fell on hard times in the 1990s, closing in 1997 and reopening in 2003 with the help of Codere and a company called HSLI, which now operate Maroñas and Las Piedras jointly, infusing revenue from the casinos they operate.
Las Piedras was also closed for a number of years and reopened in 2013 thanks to the same slots deal that saved Maroñas. The town of Las Piedras, located about 20 miles north of Montevideo, has a population of approximately 72,000. The track is typically open on Saturday, with Maroñas running on Fridays and Sundays, but this week had a different schedule with the traditional Jan. 6 date for the Jose Pedro Ramirez falling on a Tuesday.
Sunday's 10-race card included the kickoff to the Las Piedras Triple Crown for both fillies and colts. Each track has its own Triple Crown. Maroñas' comes in the months of September, October, and November and Las Piedras in January, February, and March. Remember that horses in most Southern Hemisphere countries turn a year older on July 1 — not Jan. 1 — as they have a different breeding season.
The first thing that strikes a new visitor to Las Piedras – and Uruguay in general – is the trees: big, beautiful shade trees virtually everywhere you go, from the narrow streets of Montevideo to the countryside where the only cleared areas seem to be filled with acres and acres of grapes. Wine is a major industry in Uruguay, though it takes a backseat to beef as the country's biggest export business.
Towering eucalyptus trees provide welcome shade in the saddling areas and paddock just past the small Las Piedras grandstand.
On this particular Sunday, the air was filled with popular music over the PA system (Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was on the rotation list) as families strolled through the grounds or sat on benches or cement steps outside. A smaller group took shelter in air-conditioned rooms inside the grandstand. Las Piedras, like any racetrack, has its more typical horseplayer: the aging, wise-guy male. I felt right at home.
Fans were studious, lining up along the paddock fence, to get a good look at the horses as they prepared to go out to the track. Jockeys sat on ledges, casually chatting with owners or trainers as their mounts were walked.
Ponies were the rare exception in post parades, which were somewhat chaotic as the jockeys tried to restrain their horses as they went on to the track. A temporary color video board in the infield provided odds updates and video of races and replays.
That video was in stark contrast to the Wrigley Field-style board that posted the numbers representing the order of finish for each race, along with margins as they came in (circles and pie charts explained lengths). A red flag atop the numbers meant the results weren't official. A yellow flag indicated an inquiry.
There was one inquiry on Sunday's program, and just as most U.S. tracks do, the video boards showed the camera angles the stewards were viewing as they deliberated. The placement of cameras on the 1,600-meter oval seemed more useful than where American racetrack cameras are positioned.
There is no turf course at Las Piedras (or at Maroñas), though there are discussions about adding one.
Furosemide, or Lasix is used on race-day for most races, though not in Group (graded), and it's my understanding it is being phased out for other horses.
Takeout is an onerous 27-28 percent, and the tracks offer a variety of wagers and some guaranteed pools. France is among a handful of countries that import the simulcast signal from Las Piedras and Maroñas, which also simulcasts to smaller tracks in the Uruguayan towns of Colonia, Melo, and Paysandu. There is also account wagering available, and that provides live-streaming video for computer or smart phone.
Prize money for the 3-year-olds classic, the Gran Premio Polla de Potrancas, was paltry, approximately $31,000. Las Piedras purses are roughly half of what they are at Maroñas.
There are just under 2,000 foals born a year in Uruguay, with the racing population enhanced by imports, the majority from Brazil, which supplies about 10 percent of the horses in training at Uruguayan racetracks. Many of the runners were sired by familiar names, including multiple American G1 winner Subordination and Adena Springs' Macho Uno (who shuttled to Brazil to stand in Southern Hemisphere time).
Things are always different from one track to another – even within the same country (i.e., the United States). But one thing I noticed: one aspect of the sport that hurdled any language barriers I may have had at Las Piedras was the appreciation for the horses. That has always been the sport's greatest appeal and its universal language.
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