JUAN DIAZ, PANAMA -- Four men sat at a grandstand picnic table, programs spread. Four cervezas rested close at hand, amigos at the races.
"Mi Corazon " began Jorge Rios, and his friend picked up the translation, his predictions.
My heart is with Panama, but my pocketbook? Venezuela.
That was the general consensus of those in attendance Sunday at Presidente Remon Racetrack, an enthusiastic crowd betting Venezuelan runner Heisenberg down to an even-money favorite in the 44th running of the $300,000 Clasico del Caribe (a Grade 1 race in Panama with the richest purse in the Caribbean).
Wearing the blue-and-yellow colors of Venezuela (including braided reins made of the two and a set of blue blinkers emblazoned with a yellow star), the sleek seal-bay gelding proved himself the best 3-year-old in his country with the Clasico score. Returning to the winner's circle after dashing to a 1 ¾-length victory, he was mobbed by a chanting throng of supporters who shouted "Venezuela!" as they waved their national flag and posed for pictures -- but he stood like a statue until his grooms made motion to go, his pricked ears barely visible above the celebratory crowd.
Because geldings are not permitted to race in Venezuela's Grade 1 events, the 3-year-old son of Seek Smartly was excluded from the Triple Crown series there and also could not compete in the Clasico Simon Bolivar, the country's most important Grade 1 race. Although he came in on an 8-race win streak, it took the score in Panama against the best international contenders to establish his validity.
"This horse is like a son to me," said co-breeder and owner Jose Antonio Bahachille. "I've been involved in racing 18 years and this is my biggest win as a turfman."
With Heisenberg's victory, Venezuela became just the second country in Clasico history to take three consecutive editions of the race. Venezuelans Water Jet (2010) and Bambera (2009) also won the Clasico; Mexican runners went on a three-year streak in the race from 1969-1971. Venezuelans also took the Invitational de Importados with Dixie Emperor, a son of Purge bred in the United States, who ran to a 1 ¾-length victory earlier on the card.
"This is a big success thanks to teamwork and the blessings of God," said César Paparoni, breeder and co-owner of the Clasico winner. "I'm proud to be here representing Venezuela."
Heisenberg benefited from a sharp break and rated just off the early pace set by Panamanian contender Desbocado, but pulled his way to the front by the half-mile pole. Jockey Emisael Jaramillo said he was sitting on plenty of horse heading into the stretch and a finish of 1:54 flat for the 1 1/8 miles. The duo returned $4 while Desbocado held on for second under jockey Jose Lezcano and fellow Panamanian Provenzzano closed for third. Puerto Rican Triple Crown winner Don Paco made a brief move into third at the head of the stretch but was passed by the closers and finished fifth.
"When I hit the final turn, I knew I would win," Jaramillo reported. "Every time he felt another horse behind him, he tried to get two or three lengths ahead. Each victory [in the Clasico] has been important, but this has a different flavor because I tied the record for wins."
It was a third Clasico for Jaramillo, who took the 2000 edition on My Own Business and the 2010 running aboard Water Jet. Cornelio Velasquez is the only other jockey to have won three editions, in 1992, 2003, and 2004.
Complete order of finish (with represented country) follows: Heisenberg (Venezuela), Desbocado (Panama), Provenzzano (Panama), Arameo (Mexico), Don Paco (Puerto Rico), Piegari (Panama), Predathor (Panama), Doctortico (Mexico), and Bronsted (Venezuela). Veritas, the morning-line favorite from Mexico at 6-5, and Venezuelan filly Miss Santona were both scratched the morning of the race -- Veritas due to colic, and Miss Santona because of a tendon issue.
Hosts at Presidente Remon were pleased with the result of combined live and simulcast (comingled) betting. Over $1 million for the week was wagered for the first time in track history, including live racing Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday and simulcasting on those and dark days. Sunday's live on-track handle was $217,000, while live racing on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday combined brought in just over $600,000.
After the race, trainer Santos Dominguez announced that he would be retiring from Venezuela, where he ran the leading stable in 2010 at La Rinconada Racetrack (he'll finish as the second-place trainer in 2011). A native of Argentina who rode to 300 victories as a jockey before hanging up his tack to work as an assistant trainer starting in 1981, 60-year-old Dominguez went out on his own about five years ago and had more than 60 horses in training at one point. He celebrated the greatest win of his career with one of his remaining five contenders before returning to Argentina, and will send Heisenburg safely home to Venezuela on Wednesday to be trained by Ricardo Angelo.
"This race is why we work and fight," Dominguez said. "I want to thank all of the guys in the stable and my son, Mario, who helped me with this horse. We had some issues with the weather, the horse was struggling with the heat and humidity here in Panama, and my team in the stable worked hard to make him comfortable. This is the result of their labor."
"He wants to retire and enjoy the good life," a friend joked as Dominguez left the winner's circle. "Looks like this was a pretty good way to start."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.