JUAN DIAZ, PANAMA -- It happens long before fans and horseplayers fill the grandstand, before owners and officials file into the open-air clubhouse or enter the presidential suite. You walk through iron gates and up onto the concrete apron, and just like any other morning at any other racetrack, you find them -- horses and horsemen in the pursuit of victory.
This is where the process takes place, in the predawn darkness at Hipodromo Presidente Remon. Here, surrounded by graceful palm trees and verdant bougainvillea, horses imported from the United States race against those bred in this and other Latin American countries. Opened in 1956 and much the same today, the green-and-white confines of Presidente Remon Racetrack -- the only oval in the entire nation -- form a home for a historic thoroughbred industry.
These days, many trainers at Presidente Remon are doing one of two things: preparing contenders for the weekend's $300,000 Clasico International del Caribe, or watching those contenders go through their paces while conditioning runners to compete in four other races -- the Copa Confraternidad del Caribe (for 3 year olds and up), the Clasico Dama del Caribe (Ladies' Classic), the Invitacional de Importados (for imported horses), and the Copa Velocidad del Caribe ("Caribbean Sprint"). The sandy oval has been bustling with horses from Mexico, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico who will race against the Panamanians in the two-day series -- three races on Saturday and two races, including the featured Clasico, run Sunday.
Build-up to the event and hope for the future have the old place humming with anticipation, and a general air of optimism pervades local horsemen. Bringing a $500,000 influx of series-directed funding to the racetrack through the Minister of Tourism, the 44th edition of the Clasico del Caribe comes to Panama for the first time since 1999 at the end of a season that also signifies the end of a leaner era. Thanks to the enactment of a recent law requiring that 12 percent of casino revenue in the country be designated to purses, totals for the year-round meeting (racing on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays) are set to double in 2012 -- $4.1 million distributed to horsemen in 2011 increasing to over $8 million next season. A national economy on the upswing and renewed government support of the sport are further indicators of good things to come.
* * *
Question: How do you arrange to have a racetrack named after you in Panama?
Answer: Get shot.
That's the joke around this place, which was named in honor of President José Antonio Remón Cantera. A longtime supporter of the sport, Cantera was murdered by machinegun fire on Jan. 2, 1955 when he was attending the races at Panama's old Hipodromo Juan Franco. Just six months later, on July 14, 1956, the new oval that had already been under construction was opened and dedicated to his memory.
The story of the racetrack, like most stories of most racetracks, is interwoven with local politics past and present. Presidente Remon was built upon a foundation that began when the sport arrived via the French, who came to work on the Panama Canal in the 1880s. By the time the oval opened on 72 acres in the '50s, the government had taken control of racing and was contracting the right to operate the racetracks out to the highest bidder.
As the sport declined in popularity in the U.S. through the late 1960s and '70s, it reached a peak in Panama. By the '80s, those involved with military dictator Manuel Noriega were throwing millions of corrupt dollars into the sport, buying and betting on horses.
The house of cards came crashing down in April of 1988 when President Ronald Reagan froze Panamanian government assets in all U.S. organizations. As the local economy withered, the track suffered, but it weathered the civil unrest that led to the American invasion of Panama in December of 1989 that resulted in Noriega's arrest and transfer to the U.S. For the following 20 years, the government had other things to worry about besides horse racing.
"There was no maintenance," recalled track president Carlos Salazar, who grew up the son of a trainer and trained on his own before moving into management positions in racing. "The purses were no good, there was no money coming in. But the people that really love this sport, they stayed with it. Many people left, but times change, and now people are starting to come back."
The resurgence began six years ago, when the track was privatized and a multinational gaming and pari-mutuel company named Codere obtained the contract to run racing at Presidente Remon. Involved in the sport in four different locations -- Mexico's Hipodromo los Americas, Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay, under contract to run simulcasting in Brazil, and the sole investors here -- the gaming company put more than $13 million into Presidente Remon since taking over near the end of 2005. That amount includes $6 million invested to build a casino on the racetrack grounds, an automatic boost to purses now that the government has instituted the shared-revenue law. Payments to horsemen will go up in 2012 from the lowest average of $4,000-$5,000 for a maiden race to twice that amount. The same is true for other higher-priced categories (allowance and stakes races) as well.
That's good news to about 350 owners and over 100 trainers who account for more than 900 horses stabled here. In 2006, 780 starters competed at Presidente Remon for approximately 156 racing days. By 2009 that number was up to 1,023, sending the 2006 field size of approximately six starters up to seven in 2011 with an expectation to grow even more. The import-export business is also alive and well here, where American bloodlines are very well-respected.
"People went to Keeneland, OBS, Fasig-Tipton right away to buy more yearlings and 2-year-olds (when they heard about the purse increases)," said Raúl Delvalle, a Panama native who is president of the commission that organizes the Classico del Caribe series. "This is very good news for Panamanian racing."
"I'm the happiest man on earth," Salazar said of the increase in purses and the direction horse racing is taking in Panama. "I know when I retire, I'll leave the track in good shape and good hands."
Hosting the Clasico del Caribe series, which over the years has featured the best runners from Puerto Rico, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Guatemala, the racetrack finds itself in the spotlight at an opportune time, ready to put its' best foot forward. The Clasico has been hosted by Panama on four previous occasions since its founding in 1966 -- 1970, 1973, 1984 and 1999 -- and the country holds the record for victories with 13 winners.
"The return of the Clasico is huge for horse racing in the area and for Panama itself," said Ricardo Janson, general director of Codere Panama. "This race puts Presidente Remon on the world map."
* * *
The Clasico is the one race every trainer in Latin America wants to win. Speak with these horsemen about their runners for this year's edition (11 entered plus one on the also-eligible list) and a familiar vernacular emerges. They form excuses for losses and extol the times and margins of recent victories, talking of pace and running style and luck and track conditions -- a universal language.
On Tuesday morning, Alberto Paz Rodriguez sent a colt named Provenzzano through a five-furlong move in :51 2/5 seconds. The trainer known worldwide as "Droopy" has been saddling contenders in the Classico for the past three decades, winning two editions with Leonardo (1992) and Barremina (1974). His starter this year, a son of 1998 Classico winner Evaristo, was 2-year-old champion in Panama in 2010 and comes into the race with six wins and two seconds from nine starts. He won the first two races in the Panamanian Triple Crown, but in the third leg, won by fellow Classico contender Predathor, he finished fourth after pulling a shoe, stepping on it, and severely puncturing the bottom of his hoof in the process.
Judging from Provenzzano's work earlier in the week, you'd never know it. The horse was flying, effortlessly. It took his exercise rider several extra furlongs to get him pulled him up and he was prancing, shaking his head and pawing when he finally exited the racetrack.
"After that work, people should make him the favorite," Droopy remarked. "And to think, there were times I worried he'd never make it back to the races."
Three other starters from Panama will contend the Classic this Sunday -- Desbocado (his name means "loose horse"), Piegari, and Predathor. The latter, a strapping Chestnut son of the Storm Cat stallion Slaughter Beach, will be the first starter in the big race for Eligio Ocañae. The 40-year-old conditioner is hitting at a 28-percent win rate at Presidente Remon this season, and while he's not giving away his secrets to victory (working hard, he said, is the only key), one thing he will share is an opinion about the way the track plays -- definitely not to closers.
"Most races, you're on or near the pace," Ocañae explained. "You don't want to have a closer. Middle of the pack, fine. But even in the Clasico, not a closer."
With this horse comes a classic story heard over again at press conferences following American races from the Kentucky Derby to the Travers -- his owners, eyes on the long term potential, were very, very patient.
"He never raced as a 2-year-old," Ocaña remarked. "He was overweight, he had confirmation flaws. We waited and he developed into something better. He's very tranquil around the barn, but the moment he gets to the track, he becomes competitive."
Predathor was also bred by Haras Cerro Punta, a Panamanian thoroughbred farm founded by Fernando Eleta Almaran. Cerro Punta and Haras San Miguel, the farm of Almaran's brother, Carlos Almaran, are responsible for 11 of the 13 Clasico winners Panama has produced.
Venezuelans have taken the past two editions of the Clasico, with Water Jet and the filly Bambera victorious. This year, Miss Santona attempts to become the sixth filly to win the Clasico -- but fellow contender Heisenberg has been attracting the most "buzz" of three Venezuelan starters. This son of Seek Smartly has won nine of 13 starts and streaks into the race unbeaten as far as the past performances in the program trace. He was gelded after his fifth race and hasn't lost since then, counting a 19 ½-length victory in August and a sparkling 1:48 3/5 for 1 1/8 miles among his performances.
A universal bane (and often scapegoat) among trainers worldwide comes to mind with this horse, however -- the question of track surface. In Venezuela and Puerto Rico, the ovals are incredibly hard and fast, while this track is deeper, more "cuppy." Runners not familiar with the tiring qualities of the surface may find themselves at a disadvantage, and no one knows how Heisenberg will perform here at Presidente Remon.
Of course, the new environment is a question for all of the international contenders -- including 6-5 morning line favorite Veritas, whose own trainer figures the Mexican starter won't be the shortest price come post time. Arturo Ruiz Garcia (and anyone else you ask) will most likely give the nod to Puerto Rican Triple Crown contender Don Paco, unbeaten in 11 starts in 2011 and never off the board in his life. He's "a horse with a record to fear," Garcia said -- but he's coming after the strapping chestnut anyhow.
"Veritas is the best of the three I've brought to the Classico," the trainer remarked.
Asked how long he's been training, Garcia flashed a gold-toothed grin and said he couldn't remember, but it feels like 100 years. He started in Tijuana, first as a jockey, then as a trainer, and became one of the country's most respected horsemen thanks to his honesty and work ethic. In 1968 he had a runner named Buen Tip ready to run in the Clasico, but had to scratch when the horse got sick. In 2005 the Garcia name made Clasico history, but that was his younger brother, Juan, who sent out Locochón, the most recent Mexican horse to win the race. In 2006 the elder Garcia started Tenochtitlan, and jockey John Velazquez came in from the U.S. to ride. The horse bruised his foot on the first turn and finished fifth.
Veritas, Garcia said, is one of the best horses he's ever trained. It's not easy to work with him because he always wants to be up front and can be difficult to rate, but once he gets loose, he wins by clear margins. Jockey Enrique Gonzalez has been called in for the challenge and has already accomplished it upon two occasions.
"I've ridden him twice, and won both times," Gonzalez reported. "I like the way he's training now, I think he's in great shape for the race. He's focused and has been very relaxed and professional while galloping."
Gonzalez, Mexico's champion jockey in 2007, is 28 years old and has been riding for the past 10. He's ridden one prior Clasico contender -- Interceptor, who finished dead last.
"From that, I can only improve," the jockey remarked with a smile.
* * *
At every track in every country that has one, there are those who love horse racing, who have a will to fight through tough times in exchange for the promise of better days ahead. And this tiny oval tucked into the heart of Panama City offers a reflection of the Panamanian people themselves. Both are warm, welcoming, strong, and resilient -- determined to make a way.
This is an opportune time for the Clasico to return to Panama, where the economy has expanded more than eight percent per year from 2005-2010. Everywhere you look in Panama City, workers wearing hard hats and orange reflective gear toil in the tropic sun. Concrete trucks with twisting drums and bulldozers and dump trucks and towering cranes fill the metro area, even sprawling over to surround the space outside of the racetrack, where new apartment buildings are cropping up along the skyline of the backside. A golf resort and a separate business center are also under construction nearby.
Building on the recent improvements of the racing situation in Panama, Codere's newest project is a campaign to get the signal from their Latin American tracks picked up by simulcasting outlets in the U.S. There's plenty of simulcasting within Panama -- 90 percent of the nation's wagering is done at 85 off-track betting facilities around the country -- but a 35 percent takeout rate is not comparable to the average maintained on the blended takeout rate on pari-mutuel wagering in the U.S., which hovers about 15 percent lower.
"Global integration is a big challenge, but we have to take the steps to be competitive," said Ramon Rionda, director of horse racing operations for Codere. "That goal is important, to see American interaction and synergy. Not many people, I think, recognize that outside the U.S. is another world in Latin America racing. But there are a lot of compliments between the two."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.