Central American racing, horses and people from five countries will gather at Hipódromo Presidente Remón in Panama City, Panama to prepare for the region's version of the Breeders' Cup.
The headline of the event is the Clásico del Caribe, a dirt race for 3-year-olds going 1 1/8 miles run Sunday evening. One of the best editions of the race in years, this season's field has everything from a Mexican Triple Crown winner to Panama's champion 2-year-old colt of 2014.
That Triple Crown winner is Huitlacoche, who this year won seven straight races before losing last out by a neck Nov. 6 to Famus Palo, who joins him in the Clásico del Caribe. Huitlachoche was the first horse to win the Mexican Triple Crown—the Derby Mexicano, Jockey Club Mexicano Stakes, and the Gran Premio Nacional—since Dominciano in 2002. Before that, the most recent Triple Crown winner in that country was Pikotazo in 1980.
Trained by Fausto Gutierrez and owned by Germán Larrea's powerful Cuadra San Jorge, Huitlacoche arrived in Panama Nov. 20 in preparation for this event. The colt spent five days in quarantine before moving to the stakes barn where all of the foreign horses for the weekend's races are stabled.
Gutierrez says that getting the colt used to the climate, much different than what he has lived in while stabled at Hipódromo de las Américas in Mexico City, has been a challenge. While Mexico City is located at an altitude of over 7,380 feet, Panama City sits on the beach and is often humid.
But on race day, he thinks that the change won't affect Huitlacoche much at all. His bigger worry is that there won't be enough speed in the race for the late-running colt to run into.
“For us, running is very different. We run in the altitude of more than 2,000 meters and here is very humid. This is only a small problem I see for this horse,” he said. “He's a Triple Crown winner in Mexico, he's run 13 times, he's won 9 races and finished second four times. Mexico has seven Triple Crown winners so that tells you this is a good horse. He's a very good mind, he's a horse to run at the back of the speed and close very fast. I hope (speed) is the condition (of the race).”
Jockey Luis Contreras is one of multiple North American jockeys who will be riding in Panama this weekend. Born in Mexico City, Mexico, Contreras contacted Gutierrez to see if he could have the mount on Huitlacoche and earned it because of how excited he was for the race.
“I think this horse has a very good chance, this is the first time Luis Contreras rides the horse. He's a very good jockey in North America,” Gutierrez said. “He's a good rider, very professional. He wanted to come to this race; I think this is very important. I think you need a rider to have this ambition of winning this race and Luis is very professional. He called me and said 'I want to ride this horse,' so I see confidence in his form.”
But the race won't be a walkover for Huitlacoche, with 11 other horses joining him in the gate. While none of the others are Triple Crown winners, dual classic winners from both Puerto Rico and Panama are entered.
The colt who won two legs of Puerto Rico's Triple Crown this year is “miracle horse” Registro. Bought for $8,000 as a yearling by Silent Stable, the colt suffered a knee accident as a 2-year-old that left his future in doubt. But he made it to the track late in his 2-year-old year, running four times with one win and one second.
Registro lost the first leg of the Puerto Rican Triple Crown, finishing fourth by 4 1/4 lengths. But since that loss, he has won six straight races by a combined 42 lengths. Those wins included two legs of the Triple Crown and both Clasico Antonio races, making owner Luis Archilla proud.
“Registro is a miracle horse because when he was 2 years old he had an accident with his knee where all the skin went out on the right knee. He ran four times as a 2-year-old, then we rested the horse. He came back and he ran nine races, he won seven, he won the Copa Gobernador and Copa San Juan, two races in the Triple Crown and the Clasico Antonio races, he won them both. He's a nice horse,” Archilla said.
Win or lose, Registro will return to Puerto Rico after the Clásico del Caribe to be turned out on Archilla's farm. Archilla said the plans call for Registro to return to the track in May with his early season goals being some older horse races in Puerto Rico with plans being to return to the Copa Confraternidid del Caribe at the end of the year.
But Archilla hopes that Registro ends his year on a winning note. Archilla won the race in 2005 with Borrascoso and is eager to get back to the winner's circle this year.
“This is like the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the best horses of all the countries have come to compete here. I won this race in Puerto Rico in 2005 with Borrascoso,” he said. “I've been a horse owner for the last 30 years and this is the best race in the Caribbean. The reason everyone bred their horses is to have the expectation to run this race.”
A strong local contingent is waiting to challenge the shippers on Sunday with four 3-year-olds from Panama entered in the race.
Leading local trainer Alberto Paz “Droopy” Rodriguez sends out two colts for this race. While his leading horse Calinico came up short in the Triple Crown in part because of a bad trip in the Clasico Carlos y Fernando Eleta Almaran, Droopy was still responsible for that upset by saddling last year's Panama 2-year-old champion Nite Train in the race.
Those two are set for a rematch in the Clásico del Caribe, breaking from post positions four and five with Droopy thinking Calinico is the better horse.
“Nite Train is doing excellent. He beat Calinico the last time out by the fact that Calinico broke slow out of the gate and he didn't get the best ride. But Calinico did prove the two races before that he was better than Nite Train but Nite Train has always been a good horse,” said Droopy. “He was a champion 2-year-old, finished second in one of the Triple Crown races and won another one of the Triple Crown races so he has the credentials to run a good race hopefully.”
Both horses will have North American-based jockeys on them with Jose Lezcano on Calinico and Cornelio Velasquez on Nite Train. While Lezcano is looking for his first win in the race, Velasquez is looking for his fourth Clásico del Caribe win. Born in Panama City, Velasquez is currently second on the all-time winning rider list in the race's 49 year history, two behind Venezuelan jockey Emisael Jaramillo.
If any of the four Panamanian horses or Venezuela's Supremo or Manchester win the race, they will push their native countries to number one on the most wins with Panama and Venezuela tied at the top with 13 wins each.
Venezuela and Panama have been passing the event between them quite a bit since 2010 with their tracks hosting the event each of the last six years except for 2012 when it was held in Puerto Rico. The international event returning to Hipódromo Presidente Remón in 2015 fits in perfectly with its parent company Cordere's international profile in the gaming and pari-mutuel company.
For horsemen like Droopy, whose barn is based at Hipódromo Presidente Remón, the ability to see the talent of the foreign horses on his home track again is exciting and scary.
“I'm watching the other horses and I've seen a lot of quality in this race and I'm concerned (about my chances). The Mexican horse is a good horse, a Triple Crown winner. The horse from Puerto Rico is a real nice horse and the Supremo from Venezula just finished second in the biggest race in South America. As I mentioned the quality of the race is the best I've seen in many, many years,” he said.
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