When the gates open at Camarero Race Track in Canovanas, Puerto Rico on Sunday, Dec. 11, the Caribbean Derby will be arriving at its 50th anniversary, featuring the best three-year-olds from the associated countries of the Caribbean Turf Confederation.
The Caribbean Derby has stood the test of time, having been run 48 times (it was not run in 1972 and 1979) and remains one of the richest race in the region, with a purse of $300,000.
The original idea for the Clasico del Caribe was conceived in 1953 by Ramon Llobet, Jr., a prominent Puerto Rican turfman who wanted to attract the best sophomores from Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. It was a difficult task, since Puerto Rico didn’t have a modern racetrack, so the international showdown remained only a project.
With the opening of El Comandante Racetrack in 1957, the idea of the Caribbean Derby became more feasible. Luisin Rosario, one of the most iconic Puerto Rican turfwriters, relaunched the project, travelling to Cuba and Venezuela, where his local colleagues gave their support. In fact, Venezuela was the first country to accept the proposal and this was an important push, since the Venezuelan turf industry was a solid one at the time. Years later, in 1964, a special committee designated to finally materialize the event, proposed the 1 1/8-mile, $30,000 race for three-year-olds foaled in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela.
The first edition of the Caribbean Derby was held at El Comandante on June 26, 1966. In a thrilling stretch duel, Victoreado (VEN) defeated a stubborn El Rebelde (PR), thanks in great part to a masterful ride by Gustavo Avila , who five years later won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes aboard Canonero II. That 1953 project finally became a successful reality, one that forever changed the course of the Latin American turf industry.
In the early stages of the Derby, Mexico was a dominant force, winning eight of the first thirteen editions, but after the crisis that virtually demolished the Mexican turf industry in the 1980s, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela became the most frequent winners. Panama has won a total of 14 times, followed by Venezuela (13), Mexico (11), Puerto Rico (8), Colombia (1) and the Dominican Republic (1). Venezuela holds the record for most consecutive wins with four, from 2009 to 2012. Unfortunately, Venezuela will not be represented in this edition of the Caribbean Derby, due to a strike that has halted racing there since last October.
The format of the Caribbean Derby has changed over time. From a single race back in 1966, the Clasico is now part of the Caribbean Series, which includes the Copa Invitacional (for foreign horses), the Copa Velocidad (for three-year-old sprinters), the Dama del Caribe (for three-year-old fillies) and the Copa Confraternidad (for older horses)
In what seems to be a great opportunity to promote Latin American racing, the Confederation approved to hold the 2017 Caribbean Series at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, FL. It would be the first time that the Clasico will be run in a country outside the Confederation. The executives of the Florida track are more than willing to become a more frequent, if not permanent venue for the Caribbean Series. They expect full support from the Latino fan base in South Florida, and rightfully so. Hopefully, this will be another important and beneficial change for a race that has captured the attention of Latin America for 50 years now.