Around the two-hour mark, the first group, including Ciriaco, arrives at the rest area, a huge, lush green field with a tiny pond that looks more like Ireland than South America. Jockeys leap from their horses as members of their stud furiously tear off the saddle and hand it to the jockey, who sprints to a nearby scale. The jockey, holding the saddle, must weigh within a couple of kilograms of 85 kilograms, or about 185 pounds. (This is to make sure jockeys don’t have an advantage by being too light, as well as to protect the horses against carrying too much weight. There are also jockey weigh-ins before and after a Raid.) The crew then leads the horse to a line of 14 barrels filled to the brim with water. Men dunk plastic buckets and metal pails into the barrels and in the same motion fling the water onto the horse, desperate to cool the beast and bring its heart rate to 65 beats per minute or less. Eventually, all 14 barrels will be emptied.
Some studs forgo the barrels and lead their horses straight into the pond. One jockey wades in himself, submerged to his waist in the water, dumping buckets of it over his horse. A member of another stud holds two soda-bottle-shaped blocks of ice against each side of his horse’s neck. All this is accompanied by whistling from the jockeys and other stud members: The sound encourages the horses to urinate.
Veterinarians and their assistants roam through the maelstrom. When a stud is ready, the vets are called over. If the horse does not pass the pulse test, it is done for the day and the stud breaks out the IV, the pole and the bags of saline. In a weekend of surreal sights, two dozen horses meandering around a Technicolor-green field with IV poles extending from their backs ranks first. Fifty-one horses enter that weekend’s Raid. Forty-seven depart the starting line. Twenty continue to the race’s second half.
Mi Santa is not among them.
At the rest area, her odd tic becomes something more. She is now in plain distress, violently lashing her head back and stamping her right front foot. Nacho doesn’t wait for the vets to tell him she’s finished. He hooks her to the IV, not even wasting time with the pole but rather holding the bag himself. The entire stud—all eight men—gather around Mi Santa, each with a hand on her. Together, they walk her around, farther and farther from the pond and the rest of the crowd, hoping to give her space and privacy. A second IV is quickly inserted, another member of the stud holding the bag. The fluid doesn’t help—not fast enough, anyway. Mi Santa begins to stagger. Then she goes down.
In the end only a dozen or so horses cross the finish line. Ciriaco pulls up lame somewhere along Ruta No. 14. The final result is even more unlikely than Mi Santa winning: a tie. More inconceivable still, a tie between two jockeys from the same town. Twenty-three-year-old Diego Prego and 54-year-old José Gussoni, both of Sarandí Grande, are neck and neck with three kilometers to go. The old friends decide to finish the race together and cross the line holding hands, arms raised high. They split the first-place prize money, and anyone who bet on either horse wins that particular round, though only half its pot.
The finish line is situated just outside the ballroom. The crowd swells on both sides of the road. As soon as the men cross the line, they are mobbed—pulled down from their horses and showered with hugs and congratulatory shouts, then seized by TV and radio reporters. The horses are led around the block and sprayed with cold water from a gas-powered hose. The pressure is firehose strength. The horses don’t even flinch.
Such a tie in El Raid is called a puesta. It is extremely rare. It’s been years since the last. And no one can remember when, if ever, a puesta involved two jockeys from the same town. “You don’t know how lucky you are to see this,” Leo says in the midst of the surging, cheering crowd. It certainly would have been a magical, even providential end to this story, made even more meaningful by the difference in the riders’ ages. Two men, one barely out of adolescence, the other on the back end of middle age, holding hands as they cross the finish line. What better metaphor for the current state of Uruguay, a country rich in history and tradition, trying to reconcile with the present and embrace the future. Yes, it would have been one hell of an ending, if that were where this story ended.
An hour later, with the crowds gone to the short track for the weekend’s final races, the inflatable arch over the finish line carted away and Ruta No. 14 once more clear for milk trucks and other traffic, Mi Santa still lies on her side in the field—now empty except for a couple of lingering studs and their supporters. The shadows of the surrounding trees encroach.
When she first went down, Mi Santa tried to get back up, with the stud’s help. Leo and a few of the other men crouched behind her and pushed, driving their shoulders into her as if she were a football blocking sled. The consensus was that she was cramping, in which case lying down would only make her tighten up and increase her discomfort. She stayed upright only a few moments, then fell again. After getting her up once more, for an even shorter time, the stud changed strategy. A few of the men lay on top of the horse to keep her down and help conserve her strength. Mi Santa resisted at first, kicking so hard that she tossed two of the men into the air. Vets injected her with a painkiller. After a few minutes she settled down and just lay there.
Now, two of the men sit in the grass beside Mi Santa, stroking her for reassurance. They drink beer. The entire stud does. Nacho has driven his truck over and the cooler is steadily depleting.
Veterinarians confer to the side. It has been determined that the horse’s stomach is the problem. This is likely due to dehydration and is not uncommon for horses during a Raid. They almost always feel better after the fluids and painkillers, which can take up to six hours to work. So it’s still early. But the vets are concerned. If in the next hour or two Mi Santa can’t get back on her feet, surgery will have to be considered. However, the nearest veterinary hospital is four hours away, and to keep Mi Santa sufficiently sedated and comfortable for that long of a ride would be difficult. Surgery could be performed right here in the field, but that too is problematic.
“There are much better conditions at the hospital versus doing it in the field,” says the eldest vet, Ruben Acosta Fernández. “The surgery is two to three hours. Could be a piece of dead intestine. We’d just cut it out and sew it together and close her up.”
But if it’s something more serious, something the vets are ill-equipped to treat outside of a hospital, they’d then have little recourse but to euthanize the horse. That’s another option: Just put Mi Santa down and spare her and everybody else the ordeal of surgery.
It’s still too soon for any of this talk. And none of this has been proposed to Nacho. Not yet. But his worry is plainly visible. He gnaws his bottom lip, shakes his head dolefully, runs a hand through his short black hair, puts his hands on his hips and paces.
“Every horse is different,” he says. “Mi Santa has responded well from the time we first started training her. That kind of horse always endears herself to a trainer or owner, because it’s a good feeling to see her understand and improve. She has so many of the traits I like to see in a Raid horse. Sometimes a horse will get hurt early on and can’t compete anymore. It always hurts when it’s a horse you’ve developed a close relationship with.”
“I thought the yegua could get herself right in there and place in one of the top positions,” Maximiliano de Cunto says. “Winning a Raid is really complicated, so many factors.…”
It is time for my photographer and me to leave. Neither of us has slept and we don’t want to navigate the strange, sparsely lit highway in the dark on our four-hour drive. As we cross the field toward the car, we hear shouting and look back. Mi Santa has risen. The men drop their beers, bolt up from where they’re sitting and rush to her side. Each places a hand on her, as if hoping to somehow confer a bit of their own vitality. She looks steady, walking in a circle. Several of the men back away and begin backslapping and cleaning up the empty beers. It is a celebration, a victory, even this far from the finish line.
Then she falters and goes back down.
Later that night, back at my hotel room in Montevideo, I receive an e-mail from Leo. Mi Santa finally managed to stay up and walk to the trailer. She’ll be taken to the hospital the next day for an X-ray. But first she’ll attend the trophy ceremony in the Varela city square. The Monday after a Raid, all the studs show up for the trophy ceremony with their horses, even if they didn’t finish.
“That way they show to everyone else that their horse is okay,” Leo tells me. “It’s a matter of pride.”