the Valparaiso Sporting Club – My favorite hidden gem in VIÑA DEL MAR
If you aren’t actively looking for it, you’d hardly notice the wrought iron gates set in the graffiti-covered wall across from Puente Cancha in Viña del Mar, Chile. The wall, which parallels 1 Norte Street, shields the backside of the Valparaiso Sporting Club from the honking cars and smoking buses trying to deliver anxious people to work on their Wednesday morning.
Unless you poke your face through the bars of the gates, the only indication of a track on the other side is a sign emblazoned with a victorious racehorse and bold lettering, announcing in Spanish the dates of the 2-year-old Triple Crown Races.
A guard, seated in a small guard shack just inside, is expecting me. He motions me in as I push open the surprisingly heavy gate, leaving behind the raucous outside environment and entering into different world. A gray paved road stretches out before me, lined by trees and shedrows. Steaming horses covered with brightly colored sheets clatter up and down the drive as they’re cooled out by hot walkers.
I walk down a sidewalk to an office to locate my friend and mentor Cuco. The man who reads off races over the intercom on entry day greets me with a wide smile and points in the direction of a nearby barn, where Cuco stands with trainer Oliverio Martínez under the overhang of the roof.
I greet them both with the customary kiss on the right cheek, and the three of us shuffle into the open so I can snap photos of horses passing to the track as we chat. We talk about the upcoming Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” race – the Clásico Grupo I Club Hípico de Santiago Falablla (that’s a mouthful), and the champion 2-year-old that Mr. Martínez trains, named Big Daddy (He was born in 2013 but is actually considered a 2-year-old here because of the southern hemisphere breeding season).
Considered one of the best horses in Chile, Big Daddy is sired by Grand Daddy, a full brother to the late Scat Daddy, who shuttled to Haras Paso Nevado from 2009-2011 to stand in Chile during the southern hemisphere breeding season. Big Daddy, out of Chilean-bred mare Tan Libre, recently extended his winning streak to a fourth race, taking the Group III clásico Víctor Matetic Fernández at the beginning of May.
Cuco asks where I want to go. Closer to the horses is always my answer, so we make our way onto the track to watch workouts. Riders gallop past, a few perched atop exercise saddles as they breeze out after a timed workout, others seated astride as they exercise bareback.
The ominous gray sky begins to spit water, so I guard my camera under my jacket and we amble off the track, chatting with folks as we go. Cuco knows everyone and anyone, and always makes a point of introducing me, although I struggle to remember names. Speaking in Spanish, my second language, is tough enough; remembering names on top of that tends to take a back seat. Cuco patiently waits as I whip out my phone, and spells names and words that I want to remember so I can jot them down. We have a good system.
We walk through the dampening sand towards the direction of Mr. Martínez’s shedrow, pausing so I can take photos of riders, agents, grooms and trainers who call out to me for their picture. A few huddle together in groups, some just pose by themselves. There are smiles and laughter everywhere.
Mr. Martínezs’ shedrow, like most at Sporting, is conformed in the shape of a square with an open courtyard in the center. A sign with his name and a painting of black and white jockey silks hangs to our left as we walk through the entrance. We walk over to a stall and talk with a groom, who’s calmly brushing a sleek bay colt – an un-started 2-year-old from the U.S. whose name I didn’t catch – as we waited for Mr. Martínez to return. Cuco explained that unlike the U.S., where horses are bathed every day after workouts and races, baths are rarely given here. So thorough brushings are commonplace.
Mr. Martínez returns, and we talk for 15 minutes about my travels in Chile and horse racing in general. Then Cuco decides we should take a trip to the next shedrow down so I can meet a certain character named “El Niño.”
Cuco and two other guys chuckle as one goes in a stall that seems to be home to a bunch of ducks. He emerges herding a giant white “ganzo,” or goose. My first thought was ‘Um… geese can be mean buggers, so I hope I’m not about to get a bad joke played on me.’
But no mean joke was played. They simply wanted to show off the dog-like personality and intelligence of a giant goose who can “speak” and “cry” (in goose language of course) and attack people on command. He also follows his master everywhere. It was one of the most hilarious sights to see.
After a highly entertaining 15 minutes with El Niño, we proceeded to the office to check out the jockey scale, and then back to the track to sit under the covered viewing stand. The skies opened up and the rain came down, soaking humans and equines walking to and from the gap of the track. One rider leans forward to stroke his horse’s neck. Another calmly maneuvers an anxious dark bay down the horse path, sitting confidently as the horse dances sideways.
I sit among a gaggle of men – trainers, exercise riders and the clocker, among others – some watching workouts, others just shooting the breeze. A multitude of topics are thrown around, from Saratoga to crazy ex-wives, words I don’t understand and a few “garrabatos,” (swearwords). Not unlike any other track I’ve ever been to – just a few thousand miles further from any track I’ve set foot on.
The last couple horses leave the oval a few minutes before the 11 a.m. closing time, some led away by waiting grooms, others ridden down a sandy dirt road, saturated by the persistent rain, back to their shedrows. In contrast to the U.S., where most horses are galloped, hot-walked and possibly groomed by three difference people, Chilean Thoroughbreds are cared for by one person who fulfills all of those roles.
People and horses disperse as Cuco and I splash through the slop towards the tree-lined drive. I hunch under my rainbow pocodot umbrella, Cuco under his Saratoga giveaway umbrella – a reminder that before long, I’ll be home and packing for another summer on the east coast.
We pass through the heavy wrought iron gate, back to the outside world.