South America breeds tough horses, but profits are weak in racing industry

Andrew Beyer
Columnist February 28, 2011

Hipodromo Chile is a modest racetrack in many respects, but a fan in the grandstand will look onto one of the most spectacular backdrops in all of the sport, with the Andes Mountains looming over the backstretch. When the air is clear and the snow-capped peaks in the distance are visible, the vista at the little Hipodromo is even more majestic than Santa Anita’s.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject. View Archive

As I visited the Santiago track Saturday, I observed one other phenomenon that was at least as amazing as this natural wonder. In the field entered for the first race, eight of the horses had raced more than 100 times. The 10-year-old Sestri had made 291 starts, winning 14. Another 10-year-old, Paganini, had run 247 times to amass career earnings of about $54,000. In one of the later races on the card, a gelding named Sub Sole was making his 24th start since Oct. 2 — an average of one race every 6.1 days.

At no track in the world have I seen horses with such long careers. North America has plenty of tracks with thoroughbreds and purses inferior to those at Hipodromo Chile; trainers may try to run their horses as often as they can. Yet even an old warhorse in the hands of a trainer without a conscience will rarely last for 100 races, let alone 200 or more.

I asked Javier Conejeros, trainer of a 5-year-old in the first race who was making his 105th career start, if he could explain the secret of these animals’ longevity. He said the key factor was a gentle touch in training them: “You never work against the clock.” He thought the Chilean horses benefited by racing early and often as 2-year-olds, strengthening their bones. And he believed that their durability derived in large part from their genes.

South America has a tradition of producing sound and durable thoroughbreds.

The breeders on this continent are not obsessed by fashioning glamorous pedigrees; they want horses who are tough. The best of these runners are not only tough but they possess world-class talent. Cougar II, Chile’s all-time great horse, raced 50 times and in 1972 became a U.S. champion at the age of 6.

The bottom-level horses at the Hipodromo race so frequently not just because they are tough, but because they have to. They represent not only the strengths of Chile’s thoroughbred industry but also its economic weaknesses. Don Fernando Coloma Reyes, a breeder as well as a director of Hipodromo Chile, was candid about the practicalities of the business: “You try to run [often enough] to cover your expenses. . . . We are a very different country [from the U.S.] You are rich. We are not rich.”

Purses in Chile are, indeed, not rich. Saturday’s principal race was worth a bit more than $15,000, but the horses in the first race competed for a prize money of about $4,000, of which less than $1,500 would go to the winning owner. Even though training costs in the country are moderate (about $500 a month), owners have little hope of making a profit unless they get lucky and sell a horse to a foreign buyer. Beltran Montt, the track’s director of operations, understands that purses drive the sport’s economy: “We need to have higher purses so we can get new owners to invest in horses,” he said. But in Chile — as in so many racing nations — the industry is frequently its own worst enemy, resisting changes that might improve its health.

Hipodromo Chile, one of two tracks in Santiago and five in the nation, makes a profit, largely because the tracks here have a network of some 200 off-track betting parlors responsible for 80 percent of their wagering. But in the view of an outsider, many aspects of its operation seem absurd. Like most of its counterparts in South America, the track runs programs that are a test of stamina even for ardent fans: Saturday’s 19-race card started at 2:30 and lasted until 10:15 p.m. These long days could be enlivened by simulcasting, but even though Hipodromo Chile beams its signal to the United States, it doesn’t accept U.S. simulcasts that would surely be popular with bettors. “We have a problem with the unions [which represent trainers, jockeys and grooms],” Montt explained. “They think if we have races from the States we’ll have less races in Chile.” So the industry resists the one innovation that could be a major source of growth.

There is another problem throughout South America that most people in the industry don’t even recognize as a problem: It’s a terrible place to gamble. The track and the government extract 27.5 percent from every peso bet at Hipodromo Chile, and elsewhere in the country the takeout is as high as 30 percent — much higher than in any country with a prosperous racing industry. Moreover, even though the overall handle is respectable — about $1.4 million a day, Montt said — the money is spread over so many types of wagers in so many races that the betting pools are too small for a gambler to make a serious wager. I asked Montt if any of the bettors at Hipodromo Chile made a long-term profit. He shook his head somberly.

Chile’s tracks cannot offer slot-machine gambling to augment their business. Without simulcasting, and without proper incentives for its customers to gamble, the tracks are unlikely to generate significantly higher betting totals that could in turn generate larger prize money. The indefatigable thoroughbreds of Chile will have to keep working hard to earn their meager income.

sports@washpost.com

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