by Lydia M. Reid
Panamanian horse racing has traversed a unique and colorful history to arrive at the point that it occupies today in Panama as well as the world. This history has had varied, albeit intriguing, venues filled with color and enthusiasm over different tracks, roads, streets, meadows, and even the sands of some of Panama’s beaches. Throughout its history however, the role of the West Indian has been outstanding in every facet of its exceptional development.
Horse racing’s evolution has involved prominent as well as some unsung figures, Panamanian nationals, Westindians and men from other nations, who have been instrumental in organizing equestrian competitions in our tiny isthmus. For many, it began as a hobby until a formal company was formed to exploit this peculiar activity better known as the Sport of Kings. Today the State has taken over its administration and operation by express constitutional mandate through a governmental entity which controls gaming.
Horseracing in Panama, according to archival data from the Star and Herald, started in the latter half of the nineteenth century when horse racing competitions were openly held in the Tumba Muerto area of Panama City which was then on the perimeters of what today is center city. This is probably the first formal indication of the existence of riding activity at the time, although, judging from the Spaniards’ centuries old affinity with horse flesh and riding, these races on the isthmus probably went back much further to the period of the conquest. In this sense, these competitions of speed were no different from those held in countries like Argentina, Peru, Chile and Jamaica where this sport has had greater development.
“Couples” (parejas) racing became a tradition out in the interior where racing events pitting only two horses at a time held by two different owners from distinct towns or villages were held usually during Patron Saint day celebrations. We then see horse racing move on to the “street track” phase where some city streets provided the scenario for racing the mighty beasts until the beginning of the twentieth century when the formal organization of this activity culminated in the inauguration of Juan Franco Racetrack under the tutelage of The Panama Jockey Club in 1922.*
Between1901 to 1912 competitions probably had their most conspicuous scenario along Avenida Central formerly known as Calle Real (Royal Street). These races were held starting from Parque Catedral in San Felipe (the old colonial district) until the sector called La Quebrada, between “J” Street and 18th Street East. Around 1913 the Bella Vista district or, what was then known as Peña Prieta, emerged as a popular venue for the horse races.
Since the sport was, as yet, in its early stages, the rules of the game were few and they were normally set by the notable fans, often the owners of the animals themselves. Betting was usually done between owners with the peculiarity that the winning owner also took possession of the losing steed. Although the general public did not participate in the betting that occurred between owners, there is no indication that there was any prohibition against betting between friends and acquaintances who witnessed these events. The allure of the racing events soon spread to other sectors of Panama City such as Avenida Balboa, Avenida Peru, Avenida Cuba and Avenida Justo Arosemena.
*The credit for a great deal of background for this post must go to Mr. Anthony McLean’s “Análisis de la Legislación Vigente Sobre La Hípica en Panamá.”
This story of the Sport of Kings in Panama will continue.