Cultural Divide - By Evan Hammonds

We were fortunate enough to be part of a whirlwind week of racing—on both sides of the equator—in mid-March. After visiting the leafy Maronas course in Montevideo, Uruguay, for the Longines Gran Premio Latinoamericano (G1) March 11, we traveled to utilitarian Turfway Park for the March 17 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3).

An unlikely double for sure, yet it was a good pairing to compare some racing notes from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere.

Racing in both locales relies on additional revenue from casinos/gaming, and that goes for both purses and facilities. While the purse levels in South America lag behind the prize money elsewhere, they would be even less without some assistance from the
casino industry.

While Javier Cha, the minister of casinos in Uruguay, has bolstered the breeding industry with solid incentives, from what we’ve learned, the government in Argentina recently stepped in to take 25% out of the pot at San Isidro and 30% at La Plata. The ramifications are what one would expect: The breeding industry is paying the price, and ownership rolls are dwindling.

Turfway, without the assistance of Instant Racing, which is legal in Kentucky, has seen its daily purse allotment shrink. It’s no wonder ownership recently announced a $25 million investment to remodel the long-neglected plant and install the electronic games that simulate slot machines.

While the marriage between racing and gaming is not a good situation, it is where the industry is today…around the globe. In “March Madness” parlance, it’s a matter of “survive and advance.”

The “racing experience” seems more heightened in South America where the sport is front and center. Maronas actually has three separate buildings for fans. On the finish line is an elegant facility—clearly the clubhouse—with several floors of comfortable seating and fine dining upstairs and a tiered level on the first for better viewing. The second and third are down the stretch and are more “grandstand” in nature, the middle one also offering the creature comforts one would expect. The saddling “boxes” are shaded and the walking ring under cover of large trees.

Turfway’s multi-level plant offers good sight lines for some, but not all. The apron is flat, making it difficult to see, and the lack of a JumboTron in the infield makes it nearly impossible to follow the action. Perhaps its winter dates is the reason the outer viewing areas are more Spartan.

And Turfway’s age is showing. While Maronas was completely overhauled about 15 years ago, the Florence, Ky., plant is sagging under rust, cracked paint, and furnishings that were all the rage in the 1980s.

The press area at Maronas, while under the main building, offers plenty of flat screens for replays. The following day’s local newspapers are loaded with colorful racing coverage.

Turfway’s press box, probably only used one day a year, doesn’t offer Wi-Fi. Lexington’s Herald-Leader failed to give Turfway’s Triple Crown prep a square inch in its Sunday edition.

Perhaps the biggest divide between racing in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres is in the “fan experience.”

The amount of food and beverage—read that as alcohol—options at U.S. tracks are astounding compared to racing south of the border. The amount of alcohol sold and consumed here seems tenfold to that elsewhere. Perhaps that is in our sporting culture.

Juan Carlos Capelli, the vice president of Longines and head of international marketing, had a similar observation at Maronas. The watch brand is a heavy marketer in not only equestrian events, but also tennis.

“When you go to Wimbledon, it’s very formal,” Capelli said of England’s top tennis event. “When you go to the French Open, it’s very glamorous. There is a touch of class. When you go to the U.S. Open—it’s the only place I’ve seen that when the players sit down between sets, they put on a DJ (music) and people start to dance. In Europe it’s unthinkable to do that—you go to see tennis.

“You go to the Kentucky Derby—you are there for the day. There are drinks and food and music…and there is also horse racing. When you go to sport in the U.S., it’s not only sport, it’s the ‘experience.’ ”
One thing however, translates in any language: “Horse racing is the greatest game played outdoors.”

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