I've just arrived back from a 10-day trip to Uruguay in South America. It was mostly work (filming for CNN) plus a little bit of play (a few days' holiday added at the end). Having only been to South America once, when in Rio for the 2016 Olympics, I knew this would be very different but I had no preconceived ideas and was pleasantly surprised!
ALL ABOUT THE HORSE
'Uruguay is a country born in the saddle!' was quoted a number of times during interviews and you could see proof of it on every corner. Uruguay has a small population (roughly 3.5m) yet it's about the size of England and Wales together. Most of the population live in its capital, Montevideo, leaving the rest of the country unspoilt for the many sheep, cows and horses who live there. Looking after these herds are the legendary Gauchos. There didn't seem to be any quad-bikes or 4x4s, everything was all done on a horse with the Criollo breed native to the country and ideal for the work.
I was lucky enough to spend two days with the Gauchos who showed me some of their world. Breeding the Criollos is big business and the Gauchos use them not just for farm work, but they also compete on them and show them. It's estimated that there are 50,000 working Gauchos remaining in Uruguay and they obviously play a huge part in the country's identity.
But it's not just the Gaucho culture which makes Uruguay such a horse-loving country. It's the kind of place where every other house seems to have a pony grazing outside of it. A bit like Ireland can be in places. One example of this is outside the racecourse where there was a thoroughbred being led in hand, grazing on the central reservation of the road! No one seemed to bat an eye-lid!
For the show, we filmed at Haras Cuatro Piedras, one of the leading thoroughbred studs in the country and renowned for being the home to Invasor, the country's most famous racehorse.
After winning the 2005 Triple Crown in Uruguay, he was purchased by Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum to race in the UAE and America. The following season he won the Breeders' Cup Classic, became America's Horse of the Year and then won the 2007 Dubai World Cup. He won 11 of his 12 races (the one he lost was straight after he left Uruguay to race in the UAE Derby, which must have seemed a long way from home at the time). So, in short he was an outstanding racehorse but is an absolute hero in Uruguay. Having stood at stud in Kentucky, in 2015 he returned home to a welcome party at the Maronas stadium in Montevideo. He's an impressive-looking horse (now 15) and loved showing off to the cameras. He was spoken about with such pride by the stud, you can't help but hope that he stays there for the rest of his days. In my research, I came across this article which I think sums up his impact on Uruguay:
The nation is as proud of Invasor as it is proud of this racecourse in Montevideo and so it should be. In a slightly dodgy area on the outskirts of town, it is definitely a diamond in the rough. It has this wonderful art-deco entrance which is so out of keeping with the area, but the locals are proud of it and it has provided many of them with employment.
The course has had its fair share of trouble though. The Uruguayan Jockey Club went bankrupt in 1997 so the track closed. It remained closed for five years before it was transformed into what it is today - a modern and attractive course. Here's a video of how the course was when it was abandoned:
They restored it beautiful, keeping all of its traditional features. All racecourses have to be renovated over time but I have never seen one done so well as Maronas. They should be rightly proud of what they have.
A passionate and optimistic country. When there was no racing for five and a half years in the country, the industry stood strong. They still bred racehorses, they still trained racehorses and I bet those jockeys didn't allow themselves to put on a few extra pounds. They carried on, in the hope racing returned and now they have a busy thriving industry. Perhaps betting turnover isn't as high as they'd like and there hasn't been an international superstar since Invasor but in terms of passion for the horse then nothing can beat this little South American nation. Having grown up in Wales which has a similar population to Uruguay, I understand the patriotism that exists in these small countries. It's infectious! I only spent a short time in the country with its horseman but am now firmly in ‘Team Uruguay!’
UPDATE: Here's the Winning Post programme about racing in Uruguay which first aired on 21st January: