Clásico Club Hípico de Santiago

my first Horse racing Reporting experience abroad

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Mandatory “Directorio” balcony selfie

Before I even left for Chile, my parents made a request: that I don’t spend all of my time there at a racetrack. This didn’t mean not to spend any time. It was just their way of expressing the importance of going out and seeing the world beyond the smoky and character-filled confines of the racetrack. I have my entire life to visit tracks, and being that life is unpredictable, there’s no guarantee I’ll ever be back in Chile again after these four months.

However, aside from my mind-altering trip to Patagonia (comparing the two is like apples to oranges), I think I may have just taken part in one of the greatest opportunities that could have possibly presented itself during my entire study abroad experience.

Despite my parents’ warnings of spending too much time at the track, I probably researched more on racing in Chile above anything else before landing in the country. And I had a date written on my calendar…

May 22, 2016: Gran Premio Club Hípico de Santiago.

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Um… Wow.

My research led me across the information for the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, and of course there was a race in Chile, a qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Mile… and fortunately for me it would be run while I was there.

So I jotted it down on the calendar, feeling as though it was a few gazillion miles, months and days down the road. I would be there, but in what capacity I really didn’t know until a few days before May 22nd.

It’s incredible what doors are opened when you reach out to people. The week prior to the race, I spent hours sitting at my host family’s dining room table composing emails in Spanish (with a bit of help from my host mom, to whom I am eternally grateful for her incredible patience) to learn how to obtain press credentials. I was able to make contact with Cristóbal Vargas in marketing and communications at the Club Hípico de Santiago racetrack, who would set me up with a press pass. I was instructed to call him upon my arrival at the track on the day of the race.

Before I go much further, I must clarify a few things. The racetrack itself is called Club Hípico de Santiago. The race is the Grand Premio Club Hípico de Santiago, also called “El Clásico,” which basically refers to a stakes race, or “El Clásico Club Hípico de Santiago”.

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An evening shot of Club Hípico de Santiago

Last Sunday, around 2 p.m., I walked through the brick arch and wrought iron entrance gates of Club Hípico de Santiago. The massive, 147-year-old grandstands looked like a castle, crowned by swaying flags of Chile and the CHS logo. A clear, glistening fountain acts as the centerpiece between two walking rings, spraying streams of water into the glowing afternoon sun.

Looking and feeling profesh in my new red blazer – expertly selected by my friend Courtney,  who knows I have an inability to style myself for big events – I pulled out my camera from my loaded purse and began snapping photos. Uncertain of what to expect, I came in full journalist mode with my camera, both lenses, a mini notebook and pen, voice recorder, business cards – the works.

I’ve been to a few pretty cool racetracks in my day, and I hope to see several more throughout my lifetime. Obviously Saratoga tops the list, and nothing will ever surpass the North Dakota Horse Park when it comes to sentimental value and appreciation for my roots. But Club Hípico de Santiago is easily in the top three. I might even go so far as to call it the most beautiful, with the breathtaking snow-capped Andes Mountains in clear view above the pristinely manicured track and infield.

I must add that when I mention talking to people, or anyone saying something to me throughout the course of this blog, unless stated otherwise the conversation took place in Spanish.

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The field for “El Clásico”

I made a call to my contact and he said he would meet me by “la troya” (the paddock), in a short time. Patience is a virtue I apparently have yet to add to my repertoire. So after looking like a displaced “gringa” for longer than I could handle, with no sign of Mr. Vargas and no idea of what he looked like to find him,  I started walking around.

The nice thing about cameras is they can serve the same purpose as a smart phone for entertainment – except you feel a lot more accomplished and professional while using them. Bored? – snap a photo. Lost – snap a photo. No idea what to say or where to go – snap a photo!

I wandered up a set of stairs into one of the entrances to the grandstands. I photographed a board with post positions for the Clásico Club Hípico de Santiago-Falabella. A guy close to my age walked past carrying a camera. A tag with the word “Gráfico” (photographer), hung from his neck. This was my soon-to-be new friend Felipe, whose photos from the race you will see below.

Felipe led me to an office where I found Mr. Vargas, as well as a slew of other men who I was introduced to and whose names promptly went right over my head. In general I’m not bad with names, but gosh dang-it, when you add Spanish to the mix it just makes attaching names to faces a heck of a lot harder.

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My press and photographer passes… and a pretty good view to boot!

Mr. Vargas gave me the grand tour, walking me past the paddock and to a small office by a gate to acquire my press pass. It read “Prensa” (meaning press in Spanish – obviously) and was even red, my favorite color.

We walked through the grandstands and out to the winners circle, where I met Jaime Cortes, one of the photographers for La Hípica newspaper. Mr. Vargas asked him if he could show me around later, and Mr. Cortes was kind enough to oblige. Next, we headed to the paddock, where Mr. Vargas chatted with a couple of TV guys, explaining that I was there from the U.S. to write an article about the race. One of them, whom I recognized from the Valparaíso Sporting racetrack in Viña de Mar, asked if he could interview me for the big screen on the infield.

Action shot! Photo credit: Felipe Leiva

Yes, I totally know what you just asked me… Photo credit: Felipe Leiva

I seldom get nervous when it comes to public speaking, but when they turned the video camera my way and he spoke a bit too fast for me to understand the question, I undoubtedly had a deer-in-the-headlights appearance. Chileans tend to speak very quickly, which can be difficult for Spanish-learners to process. But I jabbered away and hopefully answered something close to what he asked. Throughout my time here, I’ve accepted that you learn a lot more when you charge head-long into embarrassing situations and don’t give them a second thought. No shame.

After the paddock, Mr. Vargas handed me off to Mr. Cortes, who I followed onto the track with a small herd of photographers. I snapped a few shots that didn’t turn out, and Mr. Cortes quickly figured out that I was still learning to use my camera. After a quick lesson, he told me we could work on my photography skills one day at Valparaíso Sporting.

Next stop, press office, where I met a bunch more people whose names eluded me. But I had a fantastic time hanging out with the photographers and writers. Everyone was incredibly kind, offering me water and brownies and asking questions about where I’m from and what I study. One of the most exceptional aspects of my experience covering the race at CHS was the people. Every single person I met throughout the day was welcoming, friendly, helpful and patient. I really cannot say enough good things about the track and how finely I was treated.

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Livin’ the VIP life

A few trips back and forth to the track later, I met up with Mr. Vargas once again to take a peek at the “Directorio,” the exclusive area for racehorse owners and other important folks. A sharply dressed bartender served patrons, while men in tailored suits and women in blazers and black dresses dined with friends and business colleagues. Even the room itself was well dressed, from the rich brown wood and shiny brass handles of the doors, hardwood floors extending from one end to the other, and paintings of historic Thoroughbreds hanging from the walls.

Most regal of all was the insanely gorgeous panoramic view of the track. The green turf oval, racing fans walking the apron and sitting in the stands, and mountains overlooking it all. Oh, my heart! I was tempted to ask if I could pitch a tent in a corner and live there, but I have a feeling they would have thought I was crazy.

But for real, it was one of the most beautiful sights for a racing fan. The turf was so vibrantly green and the sky so blue. And the mountains so towering and beautiful. The horses galloping down the long stretch were like sprinkles on top of a cupcake – not only did they add a lovely touch to the already delicious scenery, but they were the best part.

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Kitcat’s saddle towel

The day passed far too quickly, as most great days do. The excitement of the crowd grew with the same anticipation as waiting for Santa Clause on Christmas Eve. With 19 races on the card, the day wasn’t even half finished by the time I was standing in the paddock before the running of race 9, analyzing  the contenders for the Clásico Club Hípico de Santiago-Falabella. Owners and trainers with their friends and family trickled through the entrance of the paddock, filling it to the brim. Grooms walked the fit, lightly-built Chilean Thoroughbreds around the path and into the horseshoe of saddling stalls, swishing them lightly with decorative towels to keep away flies.

Valets carried out jockey saddles and the colorful saddle towels. Trainer Patricio Baeza and his son Juan Pablo Baeza zig-zagged back and forth across the circular paddock, 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 and Il Rey Ivan’s owner, Arturo Vidal – grouped together for a photo.

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The jockeys in the paddock before “El Clásico”

The jockeys, emblazoned with brightly colored silks of the various “Studs,” or owners, lined up for a photo before proceeding to their mounts for a leg up. The field paraded under and out in front of the grandstands, only one or two accompanied by lead ponies.

The herds of people squeezed back out the narrow entrance of the paddock, forming a human parade on the way to their spots in the stands or up to the Directorio. I wove in and out of the crowd – mothers holding the hands of children, gamblers smoking cigarettes, casual fans and men in suits – until I reached the winners circle and joined the conglomeration of photographers walking onto the turf to capture the race. I had to take a video of the atmosphere – packed stands, vibrant crowd, perfect weather, building tension. All of this for the imminent race that would send one Thoroughbred and their connections to fulfill an incredible dream of running in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

After riding the camera struggle bus for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to take consecutive action shots while my camera was on manual (by the way, this was a mistake. If you’re like me and still learning your camera, stick to the automatic settings and just edit the photos). I took my position along the outside rail of the right-handed turf course (meaning the horses run clockwise rather than counter-clockwise as they do in the U.S.), and the race went off.

Breaking well from post one, 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 sped up the fractions. Moving off the rail as the field rounded the far turn, Kitcat and El Bromista pulled ahead and dueled neck and neck.

A duel to the finish. Photo credit: Felipe Leiva

A battle to the finish. Photo credit: Felipe Leiva

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Kitcat wins the Clásico Club Hipico de Santiago! Photo credit: Felipe Leiva

I was rooting for El Bromista, a 5-year-old gelding who was the defending champ. While many Chileans cheer for racehorses by holding a hand in the air and wildly snapping their fingers, I squealed and jumped up and down (while wielding a camera and trying to take photos, might I add) thinking El Bromista was going to pull ahead. But Kitcat dug in strides before the wire to win by a neck in a finish that I’m sure had bettors and horse connections sweating.

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Kitcat in all her Breeders’ Cup Challenge-winning glory

El Bromista, who carried 13 pounds more than Kitcat, was second, with Top Casablanca inching his way up for third. Kitcat, a 3-year-old filly by Scat Daddy out of Kossanova, is trained by Juan Carlos Silva and owned by Stud Vendaval. El Bromista is also by Scat Daddy, illustrating the late U.S. sire’s prominence in Chile.

The winners circle was a mob scene of media and horse connections mashed together, trying to photograph the moment Kitcat returned. The dark bay breathed heavily and appeared tuckered out after her effort. I wasn’t surprised. El Bromista inched up alongside her down the stretch like a little boy reaching out his hand in a game of tag. She had to run hard to keep herself a jump ahead.

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Kitcat’s connections celebrate their victory

Kitcat’s saddle was removed and they draped a white sheet with the Breeders’ Cup logo over her back. She was re-saddled and the jockey given another leg up for photos. When the newly crowned champ was led away, the celebration shifted onto the turf course for the awards ceremony.

When the celebration dissipated and my job of capturing sound bites of voices and pictures was finished, I hung out at the track with friends for a few hours after the race. As evening descended over Santiago, the western sky above the paddock blushed with shades of pink and purple. I love sunsets. They serve as my reminder to take a moment for prayer, thanking God for my blessings.

So many blessings. People, horses, a racetrack, the experience. I didn’t know what to expect when I marked May 22, 2016 on my calendar. But I’m okay with how it turned out.

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Perfect ending to the perfect day

I wish the very best of luck to Kitcat and her connections, and can’t wait to see how she performs at the 2016 Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

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