The City of Colon, naturally, was not excluded from the fascination of this sport and during the same period of time, around 1913, Colon’s streets became the venue for races involving two, and up to seven horses per race. The jockeys, especially in the case of Colon, normally traveled in anonymously from Kingston, Jamaica, arriving first in Bocas del Toro on the United Fruit Company boats and later transferred to Colon on cargo boats. This highlights another fact that many of the first imported race horses seemed to have been brought into Panama in the same way.
For this complex activity we may credit one of the famed precursors, Mr. Henry “Takeaway” White who arrived in Panama, it is said, on May 6, 1913 and who was responsible for the importation of race horses as well as for the introduction, training and breaking in of the first professional jockeys.
White, a former jockey himself, was also the first individual to establish equestrian veterinary in Panama before the establishment of this specialty in the Republic. But, more about “Takeaway” White in another post.
Another import from Jamaica which merits a worthy mention is the characteristic and flamboyant style of dress of the Jamaican jockeys whose gorgeous, brightly colored silk shirts were sewn by Jamaican seamstresses who lived in Colon.
Bocas del Toro
According to Panamanian Historian, Professor Ernesto Enrique Argote, by 1913 there existed in Guabito, Bocas del Toro, a racetrack known as Blair Park, the construction of which had been funded by the owners of The United Fruit Company. J.J. Harrison, Sr., originally from Jamaica, and the Surgean family, a leading family from Jamaica living in the area were also enthusiastic co-organizers of this endeavor and exercised great influence in developing the sport in Bocas.
Through this activity, in particular, Bocas lived its Golden Age for many years becoming a cultural and entertainment center attracting people to its beautiful shores from all over the world.
We would be remiss in relating this history if we didn’t mention the names of the notable citizens of Panama who were instrumental in promoting their passion turned professional sport. Among the initiators of horseracing in Panama we must highlight the names of Enrique de la Guardia, Nicanor de Obarrio, Tomás Gabriel Duque, Raúl Espinosa, Francisco Arias Paredes, Carlos Muller, and H. Toledano. By the same token, however, an equal number of prominent Westindian figures in Panama must be taken into account. Among them were Henry “Takeaway” White, Egbert Edward Gittens, Llewelyn Welch, Gaspar Omphroy, John (Arthur Doyle) Williams, Gerald Silvera and others.
Mr. Egbert Edward Gittins, originally a tailor by profession, figured prominently in horse racing’s infancy in Panama around the 1920’s. Together with his friend Mr. Enrique de la Guardia, his observations based on experiences from his participation in Jamaican horse racing were often respected in the development of Panama’s first race track. He has been credited with suggesting changing the shape of the race track from running in a straight line to the rounded or ellipse course that we see today in The Hipódromo Presidente Remón Cantera.
Mr. Gittin’s vast knowledge of led him to become coach and trainer for many jockeys as well as trainers and handlers both within Panamanian territory as within the area administered by the Government of the United States of America- the Canal Zone. He was a key figure in organizing Carioca Racecourse, a rather rudimentary Racetrack which operated in the former Canal area around 1930.
Today: The Horse Racing Hall of Fame
Hípica de Panamá, S. A. in league with many different interest groups associated with horse racing recently opened the Horse Racing Hall of Fame on April 28, 2009 in order to honor the many great past and present figures in the Sport of Kings in Panama. It was, however, preceded by an award ceremony on the 26th during which very little mention of the outstanding Westindian figures was made. The name of Roberto E. “Bobby” Reid, young champion jockey of the early 1940’s, was included on the list and we will have the honor of reviewing his life in upcoming posts.
Horse racing history in Panama would not be complete without the dynamic figure of Henry “Takeaway” White, however, and I will introduce this vibrant Jamaican in our next post.