The pole juts up from Mi Santa’s back, held in place by a rope tied under the mare’s belly. Bags of saline soak in a bucket of warm water. “It’s better if the saline goes in warm,” explains Ignacio “Nacho” Cardozo, the horse’s co-owner. He hangs the bag on the pole and connects it to the IV in Mi Santa’s neck. Another member of her entourage, or “stud,” holds her by the reins. When the bag is half empty, Nacho cuts off a corner with his knife. Using a large syringe, he squirts in liquids that turn the saline from clear to pink to yellow. The bags read ELECTROLYTES, REHYDRATE, METABOLISM. Nacho will repeat this process for the seven other bags of saline—in total more than two gallons of fluid.
Eight men make up the stud, including Nacho, Leo Ruiz and Nacho’s older brother Marcos. They arrived in the small, 5,000-person city of José Pedro Varela earlier in the day, driving two hours south from their hometown of Melo. They are in their late 20s to mid-30s, except for one 14-year-old errand boy. All of them are crowded into the tiny stall, made even more cramped by Nacho’s imposing size. If this were America, he’d be playing defensive end in the NFL.
The stall has plank walls, a metal roof and a single lightbulb that gives the space the warm glow of a Nativity scene. A few men sit in folding chairs. The rest stand or sit on the sawdust floor. They drink whiskey using only two glasses, passing them back and forth, as is the custom in Uruguay. Now and then they step outside to smoke.
The night is full of sounds—noise from the carnival in the city square, less than a mile away, barking dogs, passing motorcycles, crickets, cumbia music on the battery-powered radio. The horse that usually occupies the stall snorts, upset at having been cast outside to the small corral. It’s mid-October, early spring, and chilly enough that the horse is draped in a jacket.
The men discuss strategy.
“Hay caballos que vienen a largar.”
“La yegua está bien entrenada.”
“Ciriaco los pela, pero hay unos cinco caballos que le van a dar pelea.”
They are collectively optimistic about Mi Santa’s chances of winning tomorrow’s race. Or if not winning then at least finishing in the money. Looking at her, it’s easy to see why. The nine-year-old yegua is all rippling muscle, with a lustrous brown coat, a handsome white stripe down the length of her nose and white rear ankles that give her added panache. There are standard equine terms for these white markings: blaze and half cannon. But on Mi Santa they look original, unprecedented. All horses are beautiful. Mi Santa is exquisite.
Around the fifth bag of saline, two men leave the stall for Nacho’s truck, parked in the driveway. Two 200-gallon blue barrels take up most of the bed. The men fill the barrels with water from the garden hose, careful to do so quietly. The host family is already asleep, their small house dark and silent.
An hour later the saline is finished. Nacho removes the IV and swabs the incision. The pole is taken to the truck, along with Nacho’s medical kit. The men pile into the truck bed, and Nacho drives them the few blocks back to the salón comunal for more drinking and eating. The pig that has been cooking since early afternoon is nearly ready.
The jockey, however, stays behind. His name is Maximiliano de Cunto. He is 28 and has been a jockey since he was 16. This will be his first time running Mi Santa. “She’s the whole package,” he says, “especially in her gallop, which is long and consistent.” He takes Mi Santa for a short walk, guiding her along rutted dirt roads unlit by street lamps, past the single-story whitewashed houses with their log-and-wire fences, laundry-laden clotheslines, side-yard chicken coops and the occasional satellite dish. Her clip-clopping lingers in the brisk air.
“I care a lot about the horses I ride,” he says. “Like a good friend—that type of closeness. This is much more than just a profession to me.”
Tomorrow Mi Santa and 50 other horses will sprint 60 miles across eastern Uruguay among a convoy of roughly 400 people piled into a battalion of pickup trucks, creating a swirling hurricane of thundering hooves, car crashes, blinding dust, utter pandemonium and possibly even death. It’s been like this for more than a hundred years. They call it El Raid.
Endurance horse racing is said to have originated in 1955. That’s when five Auburn, California businessmen and riding enthusiasts sought to prove the 100-mile journey between their hometown and Lake Tahoe could be completed on horseback within 24 hours. They succeeded, and the first Western States Trail Ride became an annual affair, growing in size each year. Now called the Tevis Cup, it remains the most famous endurance horse race in the world. More than 150 entrants, some from as far away as Japan and Australia, entered the 2013 race.
The Tevis Cup isn’t shy about its legacy. Its website declares the Tevis “the oldest modern-day endurance ride” and “the inspiration and model for the most challenging endurance rides worldwide.” In 2010 The New York Times proclaimed, “The modern-day sport of endurance riding began in the 1950s in California.” By then, El Raid had already been taking place in Uruguay for four decades.
Originally called El Raid Hípico (el raid referring to any long-distance sporting competition and hípico meaning “all things horse”), the first was held in 1913. The route ran roughly 90 kilometers (about 60 miles) in a round-trip between the town of Sarandí Grande and the city of Florida. Thirteen horses participated. When the event was repeated the following year, the results were disastrous: Riders pushed their mounts so hard that only one horse survived.
As a result, the event was disbanded for more than two decades until it was revived in 1935 to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Battle of Sarandí, which helped Uruguay secure its independence from Brazil. By 1944 there were seven Raid clubs and a new governing body, the Federación Ecuestre Uruguaya. Today the Federación oversees 45 clubs, some with as many as 150 members subdivided into studs consisting of a horse’s owners, jockey and trainers. Mi Santa is one of seven horses Nacho has part ownership in. All of them fall under the banner of Centro Raidista de Cerro Largo, one of two clubs in Melo—which, with some 50,000 residents, is the capital city of the Cerro Largo department. (Uruguay is divided into 19 departments—states, essentially.)
“Horses are a huge part of the culture and economy of Cerro Largo,” Nacho says, “from back in the days when the caudillos were living in Uruguay’s version of the Wild West. The Raid is really a part of the whole tradition of Melo.”
It was Nacho and Marcos’s father, Jorge Cardozo, who founded the Centro Raidista club in the early 1980s. Behind Jorge’s house is a small barn where Mi Santa is boarded with a couple of other horses, while the house itself—its stucco walls and tiled roof modestly middle class by American standards but a mansion in Melo—is a shrine to El Raid. Trophies and framed photos cover the countertops and cabinets. In each of the photos, many of them black-and-white, is evidence of the key difference between El Raid and all other endurance horse races, the crucial factor that makes comparisons to the Tevis Cup or any other competition irrelevant.
Unlike other endurance racing, which takes place on trails, El Raid is run on commuter roads: 30 kilometers and back, an hour rest period and veterinary inspection, then another 15 kilometers and back. During the race, trucks speed alongside the horses, each with a numbered placard that matches the number painted on the flank of their horse. The stud acts as a sort of mobile pit crew, spraying the horse from a hose connected to barrels of water in the truck bed so the animal, averaging 20 miles an hour, doesn’t overheat. As horses pass and jockey for position, trucks swerve, collide, brake and speed up. It’s part Kentucky Derby, part Daytona 500, a chaotic mash-up of Seabiscuit and Mad Max.
Today, Raid is a major sport, second only to soccer. There are several magazines dedicated to it and TV and radio broadcasts of events. Racing season lasts from early March through late November, and almost every club hosts a race, meaning there is a race nearly every weekend for nine months—42 races in 2013. Most are 90 kilometers, though they can range from 80 to 115 kilometers. First prize is usually 100,000 pesos, or about $5,000. If $5,000 doesn’t sound like much, consider the average Uruguayan’s yearly income: roughly $13,000. No matter how many horses the field comprises, one fifth of them receive some prize money—provided they survive the race, of course. And that’s far from guaranteed.