Updated on 09/18/2011 8:26AM

Resurrected track saw first signs of greatness

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - When Scott Wells got his first look at Maronas Racecourse, he was shocked.

"It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie," he recalled. "Everything was covered in vines. Packs of wild dogs were running all over the place."

Wells had come from Lone Star Park in Dallas to supervise the rebuilding of the track and the resuscitation of the Thoroughbred sport in Uruguay. Maronas had been one of the grandest tracks in the Americas before it sank into decrepitude. The once-thriving sport had become so pathetic that races were being run without purse money before the track shut down altogether.

The reopening of Maronas in 2003 was a remarkable turnaround. So, too, was its transformation into a modern and progressive operation modeled after U.S. racetracks. But even the local people who love horse racing, who never gave up on the sport in its darkest moments, could never have dreamed that a track on the edge of a Montevideo slum would produce the best horse in the world - the 2006 U.S. Horse of the Year, Invasor.

In the years that Maronas had thrived, the Jockey Club, which operated it, became a rich and powerful institution. It grew into a bloated bureaucracy with some 700 employees, it spent money lavishly on entertainment and travel for members, and it borrowed heavily to finance improvement to the track. When a financial crisis hit the country in 1981 and the peso was devalued, the Jockey Club couldn't repay its dollar-denominated debts and went broke. Although Maronas had no money for purses, owners continued to race horses and pay for their upkeep, and breeders continued to produce Thoroughbreds - a contradiction of all economic logic.

"Even after Maronas closed, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel, the biggest breeders continued to import expensive stallions," said Ariel Gianolo, president of the Uruguayan Stud Book, which oversees the breeding industry. "The reason is that we are the greatest racing fans in the world."

Luis Costa Baleta, director of the Stud Book, offered an alternate explanation: "You might say we were crazy."

When Maronas shut down in 1997, its major creditor wanted to use the property for real-estate development. But the ardent racing fans in Uruguay happened to include the president of the country as well as other important politicians, and they viewed the sport as an institution that needed to be saved. Their plan to do so offered the enticement of a license for slot-machine casinos to a bidder who would rebuild the track. With the Jockey Club's mismanagement in mind, the government stipulated that the owner of the track would have to hire a consultant from outside Uruguay to oversee the development of a new Maronas.

A partnership of Spanish and Argentine investors won the right to develop the track and operate the slots (the losing bidder was the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon), and it chose Lone Star Park as its consultant. The rebuilding of Maronas preserved the grandeur of the original 19th-century architecture while turning the track into a modern and efficient racing facility. Wells insisted on a first-class racing surface that was up to U.S. standards. He modernized Maronas' past-performance data and gave horseplayers better information than their Argentinean counterparts receive. He demanded that racing telecasts be of high quality.

In contrast to Argentina, which has resisted the most important development in modern racing, Maronas embraced simulcasting. It beams its races to the United States and it gives its fans the chance to bet on U.S. races.

"A lot of the bettors here think simulcasting is a blessing of God," said Alejandro Valdez Diaz, general manager of Maronas. Nothing could underscore the international nature of the modern game more than the sight of a roomful of Uruguayan horseplayers watching a race from Mountaineer Park in West Virginia. Despite its progress, however, Maronas remains in a poor country with a small population and it will always be a modest operation by world racing standards. Its twice-a-week racing cards generate only about $200,000 a day in wagering - less than all but the lowliest U.S. tracks. Even with the aid of slot-machine revenue, Maronas offers only $6,000 for the purse of a maiden race. It was an improbable place to find a horse who would conquer the world. Two brothers and a third partner had bought Invasor at a farm in Argentina for $20,000 and turned him over to Anibal Martin, a trainer at Maronas with a moderate record of success. At every racetrack on earth, a trainer with a promising

2-year-old is allowed to dream that the animal will be something special, and San Martin was no different.

"Before his first start," he said through an interpreter, "we were absolutely convinced that Invasor was a top horse." But a top horse by what standards? Even after Invasor had won five straight races at Maronas, including a sweep of the Uruguayan Triple Crown, there was no frame of reference to indicate how the colt might fare on the world stage. But when Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum made the owners an offer for Invasor that they couldn't refuse - $1.5 million - the horse got the chance to prove himself and, of course, the rest is history. Invasor won three straight Grade 1 stakes in the United States before finishing his 2006 campaign with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, then he won the world's richest race, the Dubai World Cup, before an injury ended his career. His success was a just reward for the many people in his native country who love the sport and had watched it decline almost to the point of extinction. For them, Invasor's greatest achievement was to put Uruguay back on the racing map.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post