The expansive castle-like grandstands of the Club Hípico de Santiago racetrack cast shade over the crowds as the early evening sun began to lower in the west, in turn illuminating the snow-capped Andes Mountains jutting from the horizon farther to the east. Murmurs of "el clásico" floated among the masses of racing fans. They were gathered along the track to watch the field of 15 sleek Chilean-bred Thoroughbreds stride towards the paddock to be saddled for the 113th running of the Group 1 Clásico Club Hípico de Santiago-Falabella.
The historic 2,000 meter (about 1 1/4-mile) turf race for older horses carried an added level of prestige this year, serving for the first time as a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Mile. This is the second year Chile has taken part in the Breeders' Cup Challenge Series. In addition to the Clásico Club Hípico, the Breeders' Cup currently sponsors four other Challenge Races throughout South America.
The Gran Premio Criadores was run May 1 at Palermo racecourse in Argentina, and won by the Corona Del Inca, who now has an automatic berth into the Breeders' Cup Distaff. The Gran Premio 25 de Mayo at San Isidro racecourse in Argentina, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Turf, was won by Don Inc, victor of the Group 1 Longines Gran Premio Latinoamericano in March, held at Gávea racecourse near Rio de Janeiro. The Grande Premio Brasil, to be held at Gávea, is also for the Turf, and runs June 12, and finally the Gran Premio Pamplona for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf will run June 26 at Monterrico racecourse.
The Breeders' Cup Challenge Series, which started in 2007, laid roots in South America for the first time in 2012, sending Calidoscopio to the U.S. from Argentina to win his first North American debut in the Grade 2 Breeders' Cup Marathon.
"They want to go, more now than ever," says South American Breeders' Cup representative John Fulton, discussing the influence of the Breeders' Cup in the South American Thoroughbred industry. "They realize the prestige. They also realize that it's not easy to go win up there. But there have been South American horses that have won the Breeders' Cup. And the programs here, while some of them are not that big, the quality is quite high. And it's improved a lot over the years."
Here's how the Challenge program works: Any Breeders' Cup nominated horse to win a Challenge Race receives a spot in the starting gate at the corresponding Breeders' Cup race, paid pre-entry and entry fees, as well as a $10,000 nominator award. South American winners (as well as other international Challenge race winners) also receive a $40,000 travel award.
A slight catch, is that not all horses are nominated.
"There's a lot of focus on the challenge races, but that's just a part of the program," Fulton says. "If these horses are nominated, any horse can go and race, and most of the (Breeders' Cup) races do not overfill. So if you have a good horse, he doesn't have to win a Challenge race to go up and run, you can take your horse. We want to encourage more people to nominate."
"There's a nomination on the 15th of July, that if your horse, any older horse that's not nominated, wasn't nominated as a foal, can pay $26,000 - and that's for Southern Hemisphere - $50,000 in the north, and nominate their horse. That horse is then eligible and nominated to the Breeders' Cup. This is another reason why we have all our (South American Challenge) races in May and June, because if they're not nominated, like in this case in (the Clásico Club Hípico de Santiago-Falabella), of the 15 that are going to end up running, there are only four that are nominated."
Fulton emphasized the importance of the stallion nomination program for the Breeders' Cup, which started in 2011, and the added value to both the stallions and their offspring. All stallions must be Breeders' Cup nominated on a yearly basis in order for their offspring of the following season to be eligible. But in South America, if the stallion is nominated, foals are Breeders' Cup nominated for free and are eligible for life.
"That's the program that we're trying to develop down here is to get the stallion nominations. And it's a very generous program from the standpoint of the Breeders' Cup, as far as the cost of nominating, because it's much less than what it costs in the Northern Hemisphere. Down here we pay 25 percent of the stud fee, with a minimum of $1,000, so if you stand for $2,000 you still pay $1,000. He stands for $10,000 you pay $2,500. But, all the foals are nominated free. So you pay that one fee, this year in 2016, by the end of the year, December 31 pay that fee, and all the resulting foals the following year are nominated automatically without an additional charge."
"It's $1,000, basically, because very few horses (in South America) stand for more than $4,000."
But back to the Clásico Club Hípico de Santiago-Falabella...
During the eighth race, horse connections and media steadily flowed into the paddock in preparation for the ninth - "el clásico." Trainer Patricio Baeza and his son Juan Pablo Baeza zig-zagged back and forth across the circular paddock and into saddling stalls, speaking with owners and saddling each of Patricio's seven runners in the field. The connections of Il Rey Ivan - presumably friends and family of the Chilean soccer player Arturo Vidal, Il Rey Ivan's owner - grouped together for a photo.
The jockeys, emblazoned with the brightly colored silks of the various "Studs," or ownership groups, lined up for a photo before proceeding on to their mounts for a leg up. The field paraded under and out in front of the 147-year-old grandstands - Club Hípico de Santiago was established in 1869, making it only a few years younger than Saratoga Race Course - making their way onto the turf course, only one or two accompanied by lead ponies.
Breaking well from post No. 1, eventual winner Kitcat moved up along the rail and tried to follow Tambo Alto to the lead. Jockey Gonzalo Ulloa settled her back into fourth behind race favorite El Bromista as Il Rey Ivan went to the front and began speeding up the fractions. Moving off the rail as the field rounded the far turn, Kitcat and El Bromista pulled ahead and dueled neck in neck until Kitcat dug in just before the wire to win by a neck.
El Bromista was second, with Top Casablanca inching his way up for third. Kitcat, a 3-year-old filly by Scat Daddy out of Kossanova, by Fly So Free, is trained by Juan Carlos Silva, owned by stud Vendaval and bred by Haras Paso Nevado. Second-place finisher El Bromista is also by Scat Daddy, illustrating the prominence the late sire has had in Chile. Scat Daddy currently remains at No. 2 on the leading sire list in Chile.
The Clásico Club Hipico de Santiago comes as Kitcat's fourth consecutive win from four starts in 2016, the last being the Group 2 Carlos Campino L. April 26.
"He (jockey Gonzalo Ulloa) told me he was not going to be so far back as in previous occasions, since there are so many good horses" said owner Pedro Hurtado Vicuña of stud Vendaval. "The filly broke well, and although she has a complicated character, she's docile while running. She kept in fifth and I got really excited down the stretch when I saw her coming on with so much force."
"In the United States, the horses that run a mile are definitely the best horses they have. But this filly is very very good at the mile, and if she acclimates well to the United States she can run a very good race."
Fulton is optimistic for her chances and equally so for South American racing.
"We realized that you're not going to get as many horses able to compete, cause of logistics," Fulton said of racing in South America. "But we need to have them involved. And it brings in, not only more horses to compete, but it brings in another audience, because if a horse from Chile goes to compete in the Breeders' Cup, the Argentines, the Peruvians, the Uruguayans, they're all going to be rooting for their South American horse. So that's a big part of the program."
Check out Annise's blog about her experience reporting about racing abroad.