The dream matchup everyone envisioned came true Sunday in the 42nd edition of the Grade 1 Clasico del Caribe at Hipodromo Camarero in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Venezuela's queen Bambera, or as fans like to call the daughter of perennial leading sire Water Poet, "Her Royal Highness," delivered a hard-fought victory over Mexican sensation Vivian Record to register Venezuela's ninth win in the $300,000, 9-furlong race that attracts the finest 3-year olds in the region as the marquee race of the Caribbean Nations Confederation.
A rather unimpressive filly in terms of size or appearance who is also notorious for her uninspiring morning workouts, the favorite Bambera ($4.70) proved she means business when she sets foot on a track in the afternoon by hooking up with Vivian Record from the start after both fillies broke cleanly. Bambera managed to avoid a suicidal pace on a surface that had favored closers and stalkers all weekend.
Ridden by Edgar Perez for José Castro's Paula C Stable and trained by the second winningest trainer of the Caribbean Series, Gustavo Delgado, Bambera was able to slow down the pace to :25 for the first quarter, which sealed the faith of those rivals who needed a fast-paced first half to have a chance to catch the fillies in the stretch. Vivian Record pressed the early pace and took the lead in :48.3 for the half-mile while still being in hand under Mexican bug rider Juan José Hernandez, a 17-year-old who showed the patience and skill of a veteran journeyman.
The fillies went back and forth in their fight for the lead until the defining moment of the race came with 3 furlongs to go after ¾ of a mile in 1:12.3. Bambera was under a drive while still dueling, but seemed to lose ground against the confidently-ridden Vivian Record as the Mexican star seemed to have Bambera pinned against the rail and under her control. However, Perez went to the stick left-handed, and the Venezuelan regained the lead by the quarter pole, then blew the race open in the stretch to win by almost 5 lengths in 1:51.60. It was a dazzling performance in a year marked by the triumphs in the United States of fellow female stars Rachel Alexandra and the unbeaten mare Zenyatta.
Bred at Haras San Isidro in Aragua, Venezuela, Bambera is the ninth champion sired by Water Poet (Sadler's Wells -- Love Smitten by Key to the Mint, half-brother to MSW and 3-times millionaire Swain), who is rewriting the record books for stallions in the South American country, where he has been champion sire for six consecutive years, with 37 money-added winners during that span, 13 of them Grade 1 winners. Bambera leads the way in stakes wins (15), while surpassing $900,000 in earnings. She will be shipping on Dec. 8 to continue her career in the United States at Gulfstream Park in the spring.
Bambera's victory in the Clasico was the solitary win by horses that represented countries other than the host of the 2009 Caribbean Series, Puerto Rico, which had swept Saturday's $50,000 Dama del Caribe with Transformadora, the $50,000 Copa Velocidad del Caribe with Epicentro, and the $100,000 Confraternity Cup with Soy Conquistador. Puerto Rico's dominance of the series included a win by Amabo in the $50,000 Tourism Cup for imported horses, and a record-setting performance by champion Juan Carlos Diaz in the Jockey Challenge, making him the first rider to have won the competition twice since its inception in 2003. In Sunday's third race aboard Hit or Miss, Diaz also broke the record for most wins by a jockey in a single year in Puerto Rico (321) held by Julio Garcia since 1989. All in all, quite an appropriate farewell for the island that hosted the series for a golden decade, since the premier event of the region will have Venezuela as the host nation in 2010.
ESPN Deportes will air the Clasico del Caribe on Friday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. ET.
David Mérida has been a TV and radio horse-racing analyst covering the Clasico del Caribe for 20 years at La Rinconada racetrack in Caracas, Venezuela, and Camarero Racetrack in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He has appeared on ESPN Deportes and ESPN2 as a racing pundit. David is a former racing manager of My Own Shangai Stud Stable in Puerto Rico.