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Equestrian Adventures in Belize

Tempers run high and rivalries deep in the world of horse racing. Belizeans gather to passionately urge on horses that are not just animals, but represent pride, will, and family. One of these is Tesoro, a little filly with a heart of steel. When she arrived in Belize with twenty other horses two years ago, nobody wanted her. She was the ugly one, the skinny one, the hopeless one, with a mangy coat shedding in nasty patches from her body. But two women had one look at her and fell in love; they bought her on the spot, took her home, and made a winner out of her. They now want desperately to prove to the world the quality of the filly they already know to be priceless. Tesoro is only one whose fortune will be decided today. This is a story of the drama of lives changed forever in one instant, of fates made by a poor show or fantastic win. This is the story of one day at the horse races of Belize.

Most of the individuals here are following deep rooted family traditions. Belize has a long standing history of horseracing. It started back in the 1920's, when locals would gather to race their little bush ponies, drink, gamble, and to answer that all-important question: who owned the fastest horse! In those days, there were only two big racing events held each year; the Dewars cup, sponsored by Dewars White Label Company, was held December 26th, and the second major racing event was held January 1st. Both of these exciting races soon demonstrated that Belizeans have an insatiable appetite for the sport of horse racing. In the 1950's and 60's, informal horse races were held at Banana Bank, (now Banana Bank Lodge and Jungle Equestrian Adventure) a cattle ranch 10 miles outside of Belmopan. Banana Bank could only be reached by small dories rowed across the Belize River, and the horses swam across the river at a shallow point near Little Orange Walk. Horse racing became a part of the culture of this beautiful ranch and the tradition is carried on by the current owners, John and Carolyn Carr of Carr Stables.

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Today's races still reflect their back-country origins. Purses are relatively small, making horse racing a hobby rather than a lucrative profession. The owners come from varied backgrounds; from wealthy land owners, to known drug dealers, to families who have pooled their money into one racing animal, what brings them all together on race day Sunday is the common dream of winning gold. It's a rough circuit, a tough crowd, and a lively Creole style festival that hasn't changed much in eighty years. Standing in the grandstand, our senses are assaulted with the flavors of a horse race. Vendors still gather to offer their wares of sodas, dukunu (corn dumplings wrapped in banana leaves,) and hot dogs. American pop tunes blare from loudspeakers, and as people grow intoxicated with drink later in the day, impromptu dances begin on the lawn behind the bleachers. All of this activity if played out against the background symphony of the rumble of iron clad hooves pounding into packed dirt like the promise of a distant thunderstorm. The stands vibrate with the power of the magnificent animals tearing past below us, until not only are we watching the race, we are immersed in it, experiencing it from the inside, with all of the rise and fall of powerful emotions that have made this one of the most popular sports in the world!

John Carr feels the tension around him and explains, "Horseracing, it's known as the Sport of Kings. That's because racing manifests the ego like no other sport; there's something about winning a horse race that's like no other. It satisfies some inner creature. No matter what part you're playing, owner or jockey or trainer, everyone gathers trying to seek that win. There's no other feeling in the world like it". John, wearing a silver buckle that he won riding broncs and roping calves in the Nebraska State Rodeo Association of 1964, is here today with some of Belize's top horses, hoping that they will continue to build upon the Carr Stables excellent reputation.

The finest animals present today have been bred or brought from the States by Charles Davison, a flame haired, freckle faced cowboy from Texas whose height and broad shoulders make him look a formidable opponent. Like any self-respecting cowboy, Charlie wears Wranglers, boots, a broad brimmed hat, and a Texas drawl like you wouldn't believe! This man is well known on the Belize racing circuit for his critical eye and wealth of knowledge. Charlie is one of those few men who can speak "horse", and his expertise is undisputed by respectful peers who turn to him for advice on everything from pulling teeth to breeding mares to racing thoroughbreds!

Indeed, it was Charlie who sold Tesoro, the little filly with the big 'ol heart, the one nobody wanted, who has now been made beautiful by love. She prances across the field, her petite body powerful and lithe beneath a sleek coat that earns the name she had been given, which means, "Treasure" in Spanish. The other horses tower over this spunky little vision, but this tiny filly has proved herself a winner who consistently comes from behind to beat horses that outclass, outsize, and should outrun her. Charlie explains, "That horse can always seem to go faster when none of the others can. She comes from behind every time". Today the crowd is almost disappointed, for Tesoro makes her move late in the race. Her strides quicken her short legs to mere blurs and like an unleashed hurricane she quickly begins to gain on the pack! People love the underdog, and the crowd goes crazy as she passes horse after horse, some several hands taller than she, and swiftly catches the lead stallion. Together they charge towards the finish line. She has come from behind to pass every horse on the field, and now she looks victory in the eye... and sees it slip away. Tesoro's short legs simply can't maintain the blistering speed of her rangy opponent, and she loses by a nose, bringing tears to the eyes of the women who adore her.

The biggest honor that a horse can earn in Belize is Horse of the Year. John and Carolyn Carr of Carr Stables are the proud owners of Johnny-B, the horse that won Horse of the Year two years ago. They hope to regain the prize this year with Jet Stream, a sleek black who is attempting to come back from an injury. In the ratings he is matched for first place only by his half brother, Ali Banana, who is also technically owned by Carr Stables but is racing for Richard Hoare of Baymen Stables. The two men, John and Richard, are old friends, but also old rivals, and each nurtures a fierce hope that the horse that he has poured energy, heart, soul, and money into will come out on top in today's race. The animals enter the gate, nervous and slick with sweat. The crowd is silent. They know that the stakes are big; with only four more races in the season, the winner of this event will likely win Horse of the Year. The gates open and they're off! Jet explodes from the gate like a firecracker, moving with such blinding speed that it seems it would take Pegasus himself to catch him. Holding their breath, the crowd jumps to their feet. The only sound is the pounding of hooves. Incredibly, Ali Banana is gaining on his half-brother! Bound for bound, leap for leap, Ali Banana inches up on Jet and the crowd roars with deafening abandon. They approach the last turn neck and neck, and then Ali is past, moving so fast that when they cross the finish line he is a full 10 lengths ahead of the black gelding! Heartsick, Carolyn closes her eyes and hides her face, while her husband only nods stoically. He knows it's just another day at the races. They'll have another chance, next month, to establish what they know in their hearts: that they have bred, raised, and trained the best horse in Belize, and they still have four races left to prove it!

As they pull out of the parking lot, John Carr settles back in the seat of his beat up Chevy suburban. He nods with satisfaction despite his loss that day, and drawls slowly, "It was a good day today. Nobody pulled no guns, nobody got hurt". In a sport where tensions run high, this simple fact is the greatest win of all.

To experience the world of horse racing in Belize, visit the Castleton Racetrack in Belize City, or visit Carr Stables at Banana Bank Lodge and Jungle Equestrian Adventure in Belmopan to see the ranch that is home to some of the finest racers in the country!

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