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The Most Exciting and Dangerous Horse Race in the World

The pole juts up from Mi Santa's back, held in place by a rope tied under the mare's belly. Bags of saline soak in a bucket of warm water. "It's better if the saline goes in warm," explains Ignacio "Nacho" Cardozo, the horse's co-owner. He hangs the bag on the pole and connects it to the IV in Mi Santa's neck. Another member of her entourage, or "stud," holds her by the reins. When the bag is half empty, Nacho cuts off a corner with his knife. Using a large syringe, he squirts in liquids that turn the saline from clear to pink to yellow. The bags read electrolytes, rehydrate, metabolism. Nacho will repeat this process for the seven other bags of saline—in total more than two gallons of fluid.

Eight men make up the stud, including Nacho, Leo Ruiz and Nacho's older brother Marcos. They arrived in the small, 5,000-person city of José Pedro Varela earlier in the day, driving two hours south from their hometown of Melo. They are in their late 20s to mid-30s, except for one 14-year-old errand boy. All of them are crowded into the tiny stall, made even more cramped by Nacho's imposing size. If this were America, he'd be playing defensive end in the NFL.

The stall has plank walls, a metal roof and a single lightbulb that gives the space the warm glow of a Nativity scene. A few men sit in folding chairs. The rest stand or sit on the sawdust floor. They drink whiskey using only two glasses, passing them back and forth, as is the custom in Uruguay. Now and then they step outside to smoke.


The night is full of sounds—noise from the carnival in the city square, less than a mile away, barking dogs, passing motorcycles, crickets, cumbia music on the battery-powered radio. The horse that usually occupies the stall snorts, upset at having been cast outside to the small corral. It's mid-October, early spring, and chilly enough that the horse is draped in a jacket.

The men discuss strategy.

"Hay caballos que vienen a largar."

"La yegua está bien entrenada."

"Ciriaco los pela, pero hay unos cinco caballos que le van a dar pelea."

They are collectively optimistic about Mi Santa's chances of winning tomorrow's race. Or if not winning then at least finishing in the money. Looking at her, it's easy to see why. The nine-year-old yegua is all rippling muscle, with a lustrous brown coat, a handsome white stripe down the length of her nose and white rear ankles that give her added panache. There are standard equine terms for these white markings: blaze and half cannon. But on Mi Santa they look original, unprecedented. All horses are beautiful. Mi Santa is exquisite.


Around the fifth bag of saline, two men leave the stall for Nacho's truck, parked in the driveway. Two 200-gallon blue barrels take up most of the bed. The men fill the barrels with water from the garden hose, careful to do so quietly. The host family is already asleep, their small house dark and silent.

An hour later the saline is finished. Nacho removes the IV and swabs the incision. The pole is taken to the truck, along with Nacho's medical kit. The men pile into the truck bed, and Nacho drives them the few blocks back to the salón comunal for more drinking and eating. The pig that has been cooking since early afternoon is nearly ready.


The jockey, however, stays behind. His name is Maximiliano de Cunto. He is 28 and has been a jockey since he was 16. This will be his first time running Mi Santa. "She's the whole package," he says, "especially in her gallop, which is long and consistent." He takes Mi Santa for a short walk, guiding her along rutted dirt roads unlit by street lamps, past the single-story whitewashed houses with their log-and-wire fences, laundry-laden clotheslines, side-yard chicken coops and the occasional satellite dish. Her clip-clopping lingers in the brisk air.

"I care a lot about the horses I ride," he says. "Like a good friend—that type of closeness. This is much more than just a profession to me."


Tomorrow Mi Santa and 50 other horses will sprint 60 miles across eastern Uruguay among a convoy of roughly 400 people piled into a battalion of pickup trucks, creating a swirling hurricane of thundering hooves, car crashes, blinding dust, utter pandemonium and possibly even death. It's been like this for more than a hundred years. They call it El Raid.

Endurance horse racing is said to have originated in 1955. That's when five Auburn, California businessmen and riding enthusiasts sought to prove the 100-mile journey between their hometown and Lake Tahoe could be completed on horseback within 24 hours. They succeeded, and the first Western States Trail Ride became an annual affair, growing in size each year. Now called the Tevis Cup, it remains the most famous endurance horse race in the world. More than 150 entrants, some from as far away as Japan and Australia, entered the 2013 race.


The Tevis Cup isn't shy about its legacy. Its website declares the Tevis "the oldest modern-day endurance ride" and "the inspiration and model for the most challenging endurance rides worldwide." In 2010 The New York Times proclaimed, "The modern-day sport of endurance riding began in the 1950s in California." By then, El Raid had already been taking place in Uruguay for four decades.

Originally called El Raid Hípico (el raid referring to any long-distance sporting competition and hípico meaning "all things horse"), the first was held in 1913. The route ran roughly 90 kilometers (about 60 miles) in a round-trip between the town of Sarandí Grande and the city of Florida. Thirteen horses participated. When the event was repeated the following year, the results were disastrous: Riders pushed their mounts so hard that only one horse survived.


As a result, the event was disbanded for more than two decades until it was revived in 1935 to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Battle of Sarandí, which helped Uruguay secure its independence from Brazil. By 1944 there were seven Raid clubs and a new governing body, the Federación Ecuestre Uruguaya. Today the Federación oversees 45 clubs, some with as many as 150 members subdivided into studs consisting of a horse's owners, jockey and trainers. Mi Santa is one of seven horses Nacho has part ownership in. All of them fall under the banner of Centro Raidista de Cerro Largo, one of two clubs in Melo—which, with some 50,000 residents, is the capital city of the Cerro Largo department. (Uruguay is divided into 19 departments—states, essentially.)

"Horses are a huge part of the culture and economy of Cerro Largo," Nacho says, "from back in the days when the caudillos were living in Uruguay's version of the Wild West. The Raid is really a part of the whole tradition of Melo."


It was Nacho and Marcos's father, Jorge Cardozo, who founded the Centro Raidista club in the early 1980s. Behind Jorge's house is a small barn where Mi Santa is boarded with a couple of other horses, while the house itself—its stucco walls and tiled roof modestly middle class by American standards but a mansion in Melo—is a shrine to El Raid. Trophies and framed photos cover the countertops and cabinets. In each of the photos, many of them black-and-white, is evidence of the key difference between El Raid and all other endurance horse races, the crucial factor that makes comparisons to the Tevis Cup or any other competition irrelevant.

The vehicles.

Unlike other endurance racing, which takes place on trails, El Raid is run on commuter roads: 30 kilometers and back, an hour rest period and veterinary inspection, then another 15 kilometers and back. During the race, trucks speed alongside the horses, each with a numbered placard that matches the number painted on the flank of their horse. The stud acts as a sort of mobile pit crew, spraying the horse from a hose connected to barrels of water in the truck bed so the animal, averaging 20 miles an hour, doesn't overheat. As horses pass and jockey for position, trucks swerve, collide, brake and speed up. It's part Kentucky Derby, part Daytona 500, a chaotic mash-up of Seabiscuit and Mad Max.


Today, Raid is a major sport, second only to soccer. There are several magazines dedicated to it and TV and radio broadcasts of events. Racing season lasts from early March through late November, and almost every club hosts a race, meaning there is a race nearly every weekend for nine months—42 races in 2013. Most are 90 kilometers, though they can range from 80 to 115 kilometers. First prize is usually 100,000 pesos, or about $5,000. If $5,000 doesn't sound like much, consider the average Uruguayan's yearly income: roughly $13,000. No matter how many horses the field comprises, one fifth of them receive some prize money—provided they survive the race, of course. And that's far from guaranteed.

Salón comunal translates to "community center." The one housing Nacho and the rest of the stud is a bare cinder-block shelter. The men unfurl bedrolls around the perimeter of the concrete floor, though there's little need. Just after midnight, when they've had their fill of the pig, they drive into town for the remate, the Raid betting system.


Raid is more than a race. Uruguay is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Florida, but its population is less than 3.5 million, compared with Florida's nearly 20 million. Almost half the country lives in the capital city of Montevideo. Only one other Uruguayan city has more than 100,000 residents; most have only a few thousand. There are few restaurants and even fewer movie theaters. Soccer is popular, but of the 16 teams in Uruguay's premier league, only two are based outside Montevideo. So the weekend El Raid comes to town is a hedonistic free-for-all, a sleep-deprived orgy of drinking and eating and gambling and dancing. It puts the Churchill Downs infield to shame. Hell, it puts Coachella to shame. The only equivalent is what Pamplona's Fiesta de San Fermin must have been in Hemingway's time, before all the tourists ruined it.

Things kick off Saturday morning. Spectators, drinking beer and yerba mate and eating chorizo sandwiches called choripán, gather at a corral to watch the horses check in and undergo an initial veterinary inspection. This is followed in the early evening by shorter races—roughly 10 kilometers—when there's even more drinking and eating. Many of the younger men, including Nacho and his stud, dress casually, in polo shirts and hoodies. But even they wear at least one traditional item—the beret, the bombachas—as a tribute to their ancestors. Uruguay is an impressively progressive country. It has universal health care. It averages a 96 percent voter turnout as the result of mandatory voting. (If you don't cast a ballot, you're fined.) It has legalized gay marriage and marijuana. But when it comes to haberdashery, it is enviably stuck in the past.


The country is also lagging in technology—at least when it comes to the remate. There are no tote boards, no pari-mutuel windows. The process is closer to a live auction. There are multiple rounds of betting, and a horse can be bet on by only one person—whoever offers the highest bet each round. Bets are for "win" only; there is no "place" or "show." If the horse you bet on wins, you receive the total money bet in that particular round—minus a 30 percent cut for the local club. There are as many rounds as there are people who wish to bet. There is also a roughshod strategy. Betting in the early rounds yields a bigger pot for the winner, since there are more people eager to place their bets—and on a wider variety of horses—than in the later rounds. Yet you also have to put down—and risk losing—more money than in the later rounds, when there are fewer bettors to compete against. To an outsider, it's an utterly confounding, absolutely maddening system.

"We just don't have the technology here to do real-time betting like in the States," Leo explains. "That's just the way we do it. We like it that way."


The remate for Sunday's Raid is held Saturday night in the Varela Raid club's headquarters: a large, hot, windowless hall with an attached bar facing the city square, which this weekend is filled with carnival rides, game booths and choripán vendors. Hundreds of people jam the hall, overflowing the many tables and chairs and squeezing tight against the walls, abandoning their places only for more beer. On a stage, a large white canvas is strung between a pair of tall wooden beams. Onto this is projected a spreadsheet with the names of all 51 horses entered in the race and columns for each round of betting, updated by laptop. An MC paces the stage, rapidly yelling the horses' names and escalating bets into a microphone while pointing to the flashing hands of bettors. At a table near the stage, a group of officials exchange money for claim tickets.

Some horses don't receive a single bet. Most horses, including Mi Santa, receive bets of $10 or $20 per round. Then there is the favorite, Ciriaco, a hulking bay representing Club Nacional in the city of Sarandí del Yí. So far in the 2013 season, Ciriaco has competed in six Raids and won four. The bets on him range from $250 to $700 per round. Since bets and total pots vary from round to round, overall odds are not easy to tabulate or even applicable. But Mi Santa's chances of finishing ahead of Ciriaco are clearly slim at best. A total of $200 is bet on Mi Santa—most of it coming from Nacho and his stud—and $3,500 is bet on Ciriaco. Between the short races Saturday, Sunday morning's Raid and a few short races Sunday afternoon, the weekend's combined wagering will total $50,000. Saturday night's remate begins at eight p.m. and doesn't finish until two a.m., after 28 rounds of betting.


By then, the night is just beginning. As is tradition, a dance is held, this time in a drab ballroom on the opposite side of the square from the Varela Raid club. At three a.m. the line stretches down the block and around the corner. Inside, the dance floor is packed with couples grinding to live cumbia and singles cruising for partners, their faces obscured by the scanning fluorescent spotlights and the smoke machine's artificial cumulus. The guys are still in gaucho garb, but the girls pay little mind to sartorial tradition. Their heels are high, their dresses cut low. Many of them are still dancing at six a.m., as Mi Santa trots by on her way to the starting line.

Ruta No. 14 bisects Uruguay east to west. In the summer, the road is used primarily by those bound for the beach town of La Coronilla. During the rest of the year it's busy with big rigs transporting milk, harvested crops and other provisions from the farms that dot the pastureland spanning to the horizon. It's still dark as 6:35 comes and goes. Nothing happens. I wait in the bed of Leo's truck with the rest of Mi Santa's stud, about a mile from the starting line. A car unaffiliated with the race speeds past, away from town. Wherever they're headed, they know to leave early. Later in the morning, a milk truck isn't so wise and is forced to the side of the road for more than an hour.


At last: the glimmer of approaching headlights and the faint sound of hooves. It starts as the patter of light rain, builds to a steady drumming and crescendos to an ear-pounding hailstorm. And yet, in the enveloping dark, still none of the horses are visible, only the headlights fast bearing down.

Finally the lead horse passes, ridden by a female jockey. (There are one or two in every Raid, rarely more.) Then a second horse, followed by a third and a fourth. One by one they go, the orderliness as magnificent as the animals themselves. Then the scene unravels into complete disarray. Trucks overtake us in a flood, streaming by on both sides, kicking up dust and grass as they brake hard, the men in the truck beds signaling with raised arms that there is congestion ahead. Most trucks have four men packed into the bed; one has four in the bed, four squeezed into the rear of the cab and two up front. Most of the men stand casually in the beds without holding on to anything or sit perilously on the edge. They look unfazed by the unfolding frenzy, smoking and sipping yerba maté and passing thermoses of hot water between the speeding trucks. I flop around in Leo's bed, struggling not to get thrown as the wind whips dirt into my eyes and mouth.


With little distance separating the horses, especially early on, and anywhere from 20 to 100 trucks trying to stay abreast of their horse—on a two-lane road, no less—the result is sheer chaos: Drivers honk and yell at one another as members of the stud dangle off the side of the truck with one hand as they lean out to spray down the horses. Steam rises off the charging steeds as they're doused. Jockeys dart their mounts between trucks to the other side of the road to get ahead of the pack. A police motorcycle weaves and wobbles between horses and trucks, as if ensuring some measure of order. A few compact cars with press signs on their dashboards zip by, providing the radio play-by-play. Every truck is tuned to the broadcast, and every truck's windows are rolled down, giving the effect of one giant loudspeaker shattering the early-morning tranquility of the Uruguayan countryside.

Around mile 10 the sun begins to break through the clouds. Spectators line the roads. By now the horses have divided into three groups: in the lead group, half a dozen; in the second, 20 or so; followed by the rest. This is typical for a Raid, and it means nothing. Although Ciriaco is in the lead group, most of these horses won't finish. The pace is simply too fast.


Mi Santa is near the front of the second group. Through the cab's sliding rear window, I ask Leo how she looks.

"Good," is all he says, with a hint of surprise, leaving me to suspect she's exceeding even the stud's most optimistic hopes. I find myself wondering if Mi Santa can actually win this damn thing. Soon, though, I'm faced with another, entirely alternate likelihood. It is the one scenario that, in all the narratives I envisioned for this weekend, somehow never occurred to me.


It happens just as the horses make the 30-kilometer turn and begin heading back toward the rest area: Mi Santa exhibits an odd tic. Every few strides she jerks her head to the left, as if annoyed by something behind her. It's a small change in her poise, barely noticeable. She isn't losing speed and Leo hasn't commented on it. Atop her, Maximiliano de Cunto remains stone-faced. I try to dismiss it, but I can't: Something is wrong with Mi Santa.

The Federación employs strict rules to protect the horses. Along with the veterinary inspection the day before the race, horses must have blood drawn for drug testing. Blood is tested again, along with urine, on the Monday after the race. If the results come back positive for those horses within the money, they forfeit their winnings. And the jockey and owner of any horse that tests positive for doping are suspended for one year.


There's another veterinary inspection during the rest period—after the first 20 minutes of which the horse must exhibit a heart rate of 65 beats or less per minute or face disqualification. Horses that pass the pulse test can still be disqualified at the veterinarians' discretion. Vets can also label a horse "with observation," which means they noticed something but can't definitively say it merits a disqualification. In such cases it is left to the owner to decide whether or not to proceed with the last 30 kilometers of the race. However, if a "with observation" horse continues and suffers an injury, the owner faces a suspension of anywhere from six months to life. And after a horse runs a Raid—finish or no—it's not allowed to race again for three weeks.

The owners are also extremely careful with the horses. Preparing a horse to compete in a Raid is a lengthy and expensive process. Horses are confined to running on a sand track until they're four or five years old. From then until they're seven or eight, they compete in shorter races, slowly increasing their distance. But even when a horse has proven it can handle a full-fledged Raid, it's not immediately allowed to compete. It then has to make the transition to running on paved roads. Different surfaces call on different muscles, and if the owners are too hasty, the horse can easily break an ankle. Raid horses cost several thousand dollars. And with an average horse competing in eight Raids per year—barring injury—there are many more thousands in prize money to be won.


"With horses you have to get to know their manner to understand what they want," Nacho says. "If one is brave or timid, you'll take care of the horse in a different way. The training changes as we get to know the horse's nature. That's what excites me, every day learning something new about the horses."

Sometimes safeguards are not enough. Ninety kilometers is still a hell of a long way for a horse to run in a single morning. During the 2012 Raid season, roughly 1,600 horses competed. Five died. In 2013, prior to the Raid in Varela, four horses had died.


That weekend it looked like it might happen again.

Around the two-hour mark, the first group, including Ciriaco, arrives at the rest area, a huge, lush green field with a tiny pond that looks more like Ireland than South America. Jockeys leap from their horses as members of their stud furiously tear off the saddle and hand it to the jockey, who sprints to a nearby scale. The jockey, holding the saddle, must weigh within a couple of kilograms of 85 kilograms, or about 185 pounds. (This is to make sure jockeys don't have an advantage by being too light, as well as to protect the horses against carrying too much weight. There are also jockey weigh-ins before and after a Raid.) The crew then leads the horse to a line of 14 barrels filled to the brim with water. Men dunk plastic buckets and metal pails into the barrels and in the same motion fling the water onto the horse, desperate to cool the beast and bring its heart rate to 65 beats per minute or less. Eventually, all 14 barrels will be emptied.


Some studs forgo the barrels and lead their horses straight into the pond. One jockey wades in himself, submerged to his waist in the water, dumping buckets of it over his horse. A member of another stud holds two soda-bottle-shaped blocks of ice against each side of his horse's neck. All this is accompanied by whistling from the jockeys and other stud members: The sound encourages the horses to urinate.

Veterinarians and their assistants roam through the maelstrom. When a stud is ready, the vets are called over. If the horse does not pass the pulse test, it is done for the day and the stud breaks out the IV, the pole and the bags of saline. In a weekend of surreal sights, two dozen horses meandering around a Technicolor-green field with IV poles extending from their backs ranks first. Fifty-one horses enter that weekend's Raid. Forty-seven depart the starting line. Twenty continue to the race's second half.


Mi Santa is not among them.

At the rest area, her odd tic becomes something more. She is now in plain distress, violently lashing her head back and stamping her right front foot. Nacho doesn't wait for the vets to tell him she's finished. He hooks her to the IV, not even wasting time with the pole but rather holding the bag himself. The entire stud—all eight men—gather around Mi Santa, each with a hand on her. Together, they walk her around, farther and farther from the pond and the rest of the crowd, hoping to give her space and privacy. A second IV is quickly inserted, another member of the stud holding the bag. The fluid doesn't help—not fast enough, anyway. Mi Santa begins to stagger. Then she goes down.


In the end only a dozen or so horses cross the finish line. Ciriaco pulls up lame somewhere along Ruta No. 14. The final result is even more unlikely than Mi Santa winning: a tie. More inconceivable still, a tie between two jockeys from the same town. Twenty-three-year-old Diego Prego and 54-year-old José Gussoni, both of Sarandí Grande, are neck and neck with three kilometers to go. The old friends decide to finish the race together and cross the line holding hands, arms raised high. They split the first-place prize money, and anyone who bet on either horse wins that particular round, though only half its pot.


The finish line is situated just outside the ballroom. The crowd swells on both sides of the road. As soon as the men cross the line, they are mobbed—pulled down from their horses and showered with hugs and congratulatory shouts, then seized by TV and radio reporters. The horses are led around the block and sprayed with cold water from a gas-powered hose. The pressure is firehose strength. The horses don't even flinch.

Such a tie in El Raid is called a puesta. It is extremely rare. It's been years since the last. And no one can remember when, if ever, a puesta involved two jockeys from the same town. "You don't know how lucky you are to see this," Leo says in the midst of the surging, cheering crowd. It certainly would have been a magical, even providential end to this story, made even more meaningful by the difference in the riders' ages. Two men, one barely out of adolescence, the other on the back end of middle age, holding hands as they cross the finish line. What better metaphor for the current state of Uruguay, a country rich in history and tradition, trying to reconcile with the present and embrace the future. Yes, it would have been one hell of an ending, if that were where this story ended.


An hour later, with the crowds gone to the short track for the weekend's final races, the inflatable arch over the finish line carted away and Ruta No. 14 once more clear for milk trucks and other traffic, Mi Santa still lies on her side in the field—now empty except for a couple of lingering studs and their supporters. The shadows of the surrounding trees encroach.


When she first went down, Mi Santa tried to get back up, with the stud's help. Leo and a few of the other men crouched behind her and pushed, driving their shoulders into her as if she were a football blocking sled. The consensus was that she was cramping, in which case lying down would only make her tighten up and increase her discomfort. She stayed upright only a few moments, then fell again. After getting her up once more, for an even shorter time, the stud changed strategy. A few of the men lay on top of the horse to keep her down and help conserve her strength. Mi Santa resisted at first, kicking so hard that she tossed two of the men into the air. Vets injected her with a painkiller. After a few minutes she settled down and just lay there.

Now, two of the men sit in the grass beside Mi Santa, stroking her for reassurance. They drink beer. The entire stud does. Nacho has driven his truck over and the cooler is steadily depleting.


Veterinarians confer to the side. It has been determined that the horse's stomach is the problem. This is likely due to dehydration and is not uncommon for horses during a Raid. They almost always feel better after the fluids and painkillers, which can take up to six hours to work. So it's still early. But the vets are concerned. If in the next hour or two Mi Santa can't get back on her feet, surgery will have to be considered. However, the nearest veterinary hospital is four hours away, and to keep Mi Santa sufficiently sedated and comfortable for that long of a ride would be difficult. Surgery could be performed right here in the field, but that too is problematic.

"There are much better conditions at the hospital versus doing it in the field," says the eldest vet, Ruben Acosta Fernández. "The surgery is two to three hours. Could be a piece of dead intestine. We'd just cut it out and sew it together and close her up."


But if it's something more serious, something the vets are ill-equipped to treat outside of a hospital, they'd then have little recourse but to euthanize the horse. That's another option: Just put Mi Santa down and spare her and everybody else the ordeal of surgery.

It's still too soon for any of this talk. And none of this has been proposed to Nacho. Not yet. But his worry is plainly visible. He gnaws his bottom lip, shakes his head dolefully, runs a hand through his short black hair, puts his hands on his hips and paces.


"Every horse is different," he says. "Mi Santa has responded well from the time we first started training her. That kind of horse always endears herself to a trainer or owner, because it's a good feeling to see her understand and improve. She has so many of the traits I like to see in a Raid horse. Sometimes a horse will get hurt early on and can't compete anymore. It always hurts when it's a horse you've developed a close relationship with."

"I thought the yegua could get herself right in there and place in one of the top positions," Maximiliano de Cunto says. "Winning a Raid is really complicated, so many factors.…"


It is time for my photographer and me to leave. Neither of us has slept and we don't want to navigate the strange, sparsely lit highway in the dark on our four-hour drive. As we cross the field toward the car, we hear shouting and look back. Mi Santa has risen. The men drop their beers, bolt up from where they're sitting and rush to her side. Each places a hand on her, as if hoping to somehow confer a bit of their own vitality. She looks steady, walking in a circle. Several of the men back away and begin backslapping and cleaning up the empty beers. It is a celebration, a victory, even this far from the finish line.

Then she falters and goes back down.

Later that night, back at my hotel room in Montevideo, I receive an e-mail from Leo. Mi Santa finally managed to stay up and walk to the trailer. She'll be taken to the hospital the next day for an X-ray. But first she'll attend the trophy ceremony in the Varela city square. The Monday after a Raid, all the studs show up for the trophy ceremony with their horses, even if they didn't finish.


"That way they show to everyone else that their horse is okay," Leo tells me. "It's a matter of pride."

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Playboy.

Photography by Luiz Maximiano

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