Only a few minutes remain before the whistle blows. Jockeys guide their thoroughbreds toward the starting gate, gamblers place their final bets and cheers erupt from the crowd at the racetrack, home of Venezuela’s No. 2 spectator sport.
In this baseball-crazed South American nation, horse racing is second only to championship games headlined by major league sluggers.
Bars and restaurants featuring off-track betting often are packed, all eyes glued to the races on television. As soon as the starting whistle blows, the cacophony begins.
On weekends, La Rinconada — the country’s oldest and largest track — is the center of attention.
A father of two young boys with binoculars around their necks -explains to them the basics of betting as they watch the latest replay of a race on a TV.
Young women in miniskirts and revealing tops grasp wads of cash as they collect bets, which are technically illegal, but tolerated by authorities. When they pay out, winners sometimes leave big tips.
Most of the fans are clenching a copy of Gaceta Hipica, or “Horse Racing Gazette,” a magazine that sells roughly 200,000 copies weekly — more than most of the country’s newspapers. It lists all the races, favorite horses and betting tips.
Vendors in the stands hawk popcorn, hot dogs, fried pork rinds and cachapas, cornmeal pancakes served with a slice of cheese, as fans drink cold beer and await the next race. Wealthy businessmen and horse owners rub shoulders in air-conditioned luxury boxes -overlooking the track, sipping Scotch on the rocks and snacking on hors d’oeuvres.
“Being here, you see everything that revolves around the races,” said Jose Mijares, a burly 54-year-old mechanic who occasionally brings his wife and six-year-old daughter to La Rinconada on weekends.
Built by Venezuelan dictator General Marcos Perez Jimenez in the mid-1950s and inaugurated in 1959, La Rinconada was once one of South America’s most prestigious racetracks, sporting 12,500 seats along with more than a dozen elegant bars, cafes and restaurants.
Designed by American architect Arthur Froehlich, who also drew up the blueprints for New York’s famed Aqueduct racetrack, La Rinconada has a 1,750m track and stables, and once boasted a first-rate veterinary hospital.
Much of La Rinconada’s glory has faded: Wooden seats have broken, along with the plumbing in restrooms and cracked tiles cling to dilapidated walls.
However, the excitement surrounding the races hasn’t ebbed.
And it transcends social standing, drawing poor Venezuelans, middle-class professionals and the well-to-do.
While soccer is growing in popularity, especially among the children of Latin American and European immigrants, it doesn’t seem to have surpassed horse racing. Baseball — the country’s national sport — is played almost everywhere, from sandlots to well-groomed diamonds.
Going to the racetrack, however, isn’t just a sport; it’s also a social event.
Veterinarian Hernan De Rosales mingled with well-heeled thoroughbred owners on one recent Sunday afternoon at the stables, where the bespectacled 80-year-old seems to feel most at home.
“Horse racing is part of our culture. Its roots go back hundreds of years,” said De Rosales, adding the sport’s beginnings in Venezuela coincided with the South American nation’s struggle for independence from Spain, which culminated in 1811.