When the gates open at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Dec. 9, the Clásico del Caribe, also known as the Caribbean Derby, will be arriving at its 50th edition, featuring the best 3-year-olds from the associated countries of the Caribbean Turf Confederation.
The Caribbean Derby has stood the test of time, having been run 49 times (it was not run in 1972 and 1979) and remains one of the richest races in the region, with a purse of $300,000.
The original idea for the Clásico del Caribe was conceived in 1953 by Ramon “Moncho” Llobet Jr., a prominent Puerto Rican turfman who wanted to attract the best sophomores from Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. It was a difficult task, since Puerto Rico didn't have a modern racetrack, so the international showdown remained only a dream.
With the opening of El Comandante Racetrack in 1957, the concept of the Caribbean Derby became more feasible. Luisin Rosario, one of the most iconic Puerto Rican turf writers, relaunched the project, travelling to Cuba and Venezuela, where his local colleagues provided their support. In fact, Venezuela was the first country to endorse the proposal and this was an important push, since the Venezuelan turf industry was a solid one at the time. Years later, in 1964, a special committee designated to make this event a reality, proposed the 1 1/8-mile, $30,000 race for 3-year-olds foaled in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela.
The first edition of the Caribbean Derby was held at El Comandante on June 26, 1966. In a thrilling stretch duel, Victoreado (Ven) defeated a stubborn El Rebelde (PR), thanks in great part to a masterful ride by Gustavo Avila, who five years later won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes aboard Canonero II. That 1953 dream finally became a successful reality, one that forever changed the course of the Latin American turf industry.
In the early stages of the Derby, Mexico was a dominant force, winning eight of the first 13 editions, but after the crisis that virtually demolished the Mexican turf industry in the 1980s, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela became the most frequent winners. Panama has won a total of 15 times, followed by Venezuela (13), Mexico (11), Puerto Rico (8), Colombia (1) and the Dominican Republic (1). Venezuela, absent from the event last year, holds the record for most consecutive wins with four, from 2009 to 2012.
The format of the Caribbean Derby has changed over time. From a single race back in 1966, the Clásico is now part of the Caribbean Series – with purses totaling $600,000 – which includes the Copa Invitacional (for foreign horses), the Copa Velocidad (for 3-year-old sprinters), the Dama del Caribe (for 3-year-old fillies) and the Copa Confraternidad (for older horses).
In what seems to be a great opportunity to promote Latin American racing, the Caribbean Turf Confederation voted to hold the 2017 Caribbean Series at Gulfstream Park. It would be the first time the Clásico will be run in a country outside of the Confederation. Management of the Stronach Group-owned racetrack in Hallandale, FL are more than willing to become a frequent – if not permanent – venue for the Caribbean Series. They expect full support from the sizable Latino fan base in South Florida, and rightfully so.
It is hoped this will be another important and beneficial change for an emblematic race that has captured the attention of Latin America for half a century.
Ramon Brito is managing editor of Paulick Report en Español
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