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They Call It El Raid
  • April 15, 2014 : 10:04
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Salón comunal translates to “community center.” The one housing Nacho and the rest of the stud is a bare cinder-block shelter. The men unfurl bedrolls around the perimeter of the concrete floor, though there’s little need. Just after midnight, when they’ve had their fill of the pig, they drive into town for the remate, the Raid betting system.

Raid is more than a race. Uruguay is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Florida, but its population is less than 3.5 million, compared with Florida’s nearly 20 million. Almost half the country lives in the capital city of Montevideo. Only one other Uruguayan city has more than 100,000 residents; most have only a few thousand. There are few restaurants and even fewer movie theaters. Soccer is popular, but of the 16 teams in Uruguay’s premier league, only two are based outside Montevideo. So the weekend El Raid comes to town is a hedonistic free-for-all, a sleep-deprived orgy of drinking and eating and gambling and dancing. It puts the Churchill Downs infield to shame. Hell, it puts Coachella to shame. The only equivalent is what Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermin must have been in Hemingway’s time, before all the tourists ruined it.

Things kick off Saturday morning. Spectators, drinking beer and yerba mate and eating chorizo sandwiches called choripán, gather at a corral to watch the horses check in and undergo an initial veterinary inspection. This is followed in the early evening by shorter races—roughly 10 kilometers—when there’s even more drinking and eating. Many of the younger men, including Nacho and his stud, dress casually, in polo shirts and hoodies. But even they wear at least one traditional item—the beret, the bombachas—as a tribute to their ancestors. Uruguay is an impressively progressive country. It has universal health care. It averages a 96 percent voter turnout as the result of mandatory voting. (If you don’t cast a ballot, you’re fined.) It has legalized gay marriage and marijuana. But when it comes to haberdashery, it is enviably stuck in the past.

The country is also lagging in technology—at least when it comes to the remate. There are no tote boards, no pari-mutuel windows. The process is closer to a live auction. There are multiple rounds of betting, and a horse can be bet on by only one person—whoever offers the highest bet each round. Bets are for “win” only; there is no “place” or “show.” If the horse you bet on wins, you receive the total money bet in that particular round—minus a 30 percent cut for the local club. There are as many rounds as there are people who wish to bet. There is also a roughshod strategy. Betting in the early rounds yields a bigger pot for the winner, since there are more people eager to place their bets—and on a wider variety of horses—than in the later rounds. Yet you also have to put down—and risk losing—more money than in the later rounds, when there are fewer bettors to compete against. To an outsider, it’s an utterly confounding, absolutely maddening system.

“We just don’t have the technology here to do real-time betting like in the States,” Leo explains. “That’s just the way we do it. We like it that way.”

The remate for Sunday’s Raid is held Saturday night in the Varela Raid club’s headquarters: a large, hot, windowless hall with an attached bar facing the city square, which this weekend is filled with carnival rides, game booths and choripán vendors. Hundreds of people jam the hall, overflowing the many tables and chairs and squeezing tight against the walls, abandoning their places only for more beer. On a stage, a large white canvas is strung between a pair of tall wooden beams. Onto this is projected a spreadsheet with the names of all 51 horses entered in the race and columns for each round of betting, updated by laptop. An MC paces the stage, rapidly yelling the horses’ names and escalating bets into a microphone while pointing to the flashing hands of bettors. At a table near the stage, a group of officials exchange money for claim tickets.

Some horses don’t receive a single bet. Most horses, including Mi Santa, receive bets of $10 or $20 per round. Then there is the favorite, Ciriaco, a hulking bay representing Club Nacional in the city of Sarandí del Yí. So far in the 2013 season, Ciriaco has competed in six Raids and won four. The bets on him range from $250 to $700 per round. Since bets and total pots vary from round to round, overall odds are not easy to tabulate or even applicable. But Mi Santa’s chances of finishing ahead of Ciriaco are clearly slim at best. A total of $200 is bet on Mi Santa—most of it coming from Nacho and his stud—and $3,500 is bet on Ciriaco. Between the short races Saturday, Sunday morning’s Raid and a few short races Sunday afternoon, the weekend’s combined wagering will total $50,000. Saturday night’s remate begins at eight P.M. and doesn’t finish until two A.M., after 28 rounds of betting.

By then, the night is just beginning. As is tradition, a dance is held, this time in a drab ballroom on the opposite side of the square from the Varela Raid club. At three A.M. the line stretches down the block and around the corner. Inside, the dance floor is packed with couples grinding to live cumbia and singles cruising for partners, their faces obscured by the scanning fluorescent spotlights and the smoke machine’s artificial cumulus. The guys are still in gaucho garb, but the girls pay little mind to sartorial tradition. Their heels are high, their dresses cut low. Many of them are still dancing at six A.M., as Mi Santa trots by on her way to the starting line.

Ruta No. 14 bisects Uruguay east to west. In the summer, the road is used primarily by those bound for the beach town of La Coronilla. During the rest of the year it’s busy with big rigs transporting milk, harvested crops and other provisions from the farms that dot the pastureland spanning to the horizon. It’s still dark as 6:35 comes and goes. Nothing happens. I wait in the bed of Leo’s truck with the rest of Mi Santa’s stud, about a mile from the starting line. A car unaffiliated with the race speeds past, away from town. Wherever they’re headed, they know to leave early. Later in the morning, a milk truck isn’t so wise and is forced to the side of the road for more than an hour.

At last: the glimmer of approaching headlights and the faint sound of hooves. It starts as the patter of light rain, builds to a steady drumming and crescendos to an ear-pounding hailstorm. And yet, in the enveloping dark, still none of the horses are visible, only the headlights fast bearing down.

Finally the lead horse passes, ridden by a female jockey. (There are one or two in every Raid, rarely more.) Then a second horse, followed by a third and a fourth. One by one they go, the orderliness as magnificent as the animals themselves. Then the scene unravels into complete disarray. Trucks overtake us in a flood, streaming by on both sides, kicking up dust and grass as they brake hard, the men in the truck beds signaling with raised arms that there is congestion ahead. Most trucks have four men packed into the bed; one has four in the bed, four squeezed into the rear of the cab and two up front. Most of the men stand casually in the beds without holding on to anything or sit perilously on the edge. They look unfazed by the unfolding frenzy, smoking and sipping yerba maté and passing thermoses of hot water between the speeding trucks. I flop around in Leo’s bed, struggling not to get thrown as the wind whips dirt into my eyes and mouth.

With little distance separating the horses, especially early on, and anywhere from 20 to 100 trucks trying to stay abreast of their horse—on a two-lane road, no less—the result is sheer chaos: Drivers honk and yell at one another as members of the stud dangle off the side of the truck with one hand as they lean out to spray down the horses. Steam rises off the charging steeds as they’re doused. Jockeys dart their mounts between trucks to the other side of the road to get ahead of the pack. A police motorcycle weaves and wobbles between horses and trucks, as if ensuring some measure of order. A few compact cars with press signs on their dashboards zip by, providing the radio play-by-play. Every truck is tuned to the broadcast, and every truck’s windows are rolled down, giving the effect of one giant loudspeaker shattering the early-morning tranquility of the Uruguayan countryside.

Around mile 10 the sun begins to break through the clouds. Spectators line the roads. By now the horses have divided into three groups: in the lead group, half a dozen; in the second, 20 or so; followed by the rest. This is typical for a Raid, and it means nothing. Although Ciriaco is in the lead group, most of these horses won’t finish. The pace is simply too fast.

Mi Santa is near the front of the second group. Through the cab’s sliding rear window, I ask Leo how she looks.

“Good,” is all he says, with a hint of surprise, leaving me to suspect she’s exceeding even the stud’s most optimistic hopes. I find myself wondering if Mi Santa can actually win this damn thing. Soon, though, I’m faced with another, entirely alternate likelihood. It is the one scenario that, in all the narratives I envisioned for this weekend, somehow never occurred to me.

It happens just as the horses make the 30-kilometer turn and begin heading back toward the rest area: Mi Santa exhibits an odd tic. Every few strides she jerks her head to the left, as if annoyed by something behind her. It’s a small change in her poise, barely noticeable. She isn’t losing speed and Leo hasn’t commented on it. Atop her, Maximiliano de Cunto remains stone-faced. I try to dismiss it, but I can’t: Something is wrong with Mi Santa.

The Federación employs strict rules to protect the horses. Along with the veterinary inspection the day before the race, horses must have blood drawn for drug testing. Blood is tested again, along with urine, on the Monday after the race. If the results come back positive for those horses within the money, they forfeit their winnings. And the jockey and owner of any horse that tests positive for doping are suspended for one year.

There’s another veterinary inspection during the rest period—after the first 20 minutes of which the horse must exhibit a heart rate of 65 beats or less per minute or face disqualification. Horses that pass the pulse test can still be disqualified at the veterinarians’ discretion. Vets can also label a horse “with observation,” which means they noticed something but can’t definitively say it merits a disqualification. In such cases it is left to the owner to decide whether or not to proceed with the last 30 kilometers of the race. However, if a “with observation” horse continues and suffers an injury, the owner faces a suspension of anywhere from six months to life. And after a horse runs a Raid—finish or no—it’s not allowed to race again for three weeks.

The owners are also extremely careful with the horses. Preparing a horse to compete in a Raid is a lengthy and expensive process. Horses are confined to running on a sand track until they’re four or five years old. From then until they’re seven or eight, they compete in shorter races, slowly increasing their distance. But even when a horse has proven it can handle a full-fledged Raid, it’s not immediately allowed to compete. It then has to make the transition to running on paved roads. Different surfaces call on different muscles, and if the owners are too hasty, the horse can easily break an ankle. Raid horses cost several thousand dollars. And with an average horse competing in eight Raids per year—barring injury—there are many more thousands in prize money to be won.

“With horses you have to get to know their manner to understand what they want,” Nacho says. “If one is brave or timid, you’ll take care of the horse in a different way. The training changes as we get to know the horse’s nature. That’s what excites me, every day learning something new about the horses.”

Sometimes safeguards are not enough. Ninety kilometers is still a hell of a long way for a horse to run in a single morning. During the 2012 Raid season, roughly 1,600 horses competed. Five died. In 2013, prior to the Raid in Varela, four horses had died.

That weekend it looked like it might happen again.

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read more: sports, entertainment, race, issue may 2014

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