The Sandy Lane Gold Cup high stakes race has been a fixture on the Barbados horse racing calendar for forty years. It takes place in early March at the historic Garrison Savannah just outside of the capital Bridgetown. It’s definitely an international affair as it attracts fans from across the globe.
Racing began at the Garrison as early as 1845 when officers of the British Regiment who were stationed there (Barbados being a former colony) raced their horses on what was the parade ground. Soon the wealthy from the planter class (sugar being the main cash crop) and the well to do merchants joined in.
The Garrison, now home to the Barbados Defence Force is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the track, it encompasses George Washington House, (the only place the American president ever visited outside the USA), St. Ann’s Fort, a military cemetery and the Barbados Museum.
The governing body of horse racing on the island, the Barbados Turf Club, was established in 1905. It’s responsible for managing, organizing and promoting racing throughout the season.
THE BUILD UP:
After a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic, this event is back with a bang. My wife and I attended the last one in 2020 but this version promised to be bigger and better, it definitely was. Visitors and locals packed the grandstands, and the VIP areas were all sold out months ago. In the infield, tents offering various packages of amenities were added along with a play area for the kids. The international field of horses, jockeys and trainers made for some close, competitive and exciting races. Our President and Prime Minister are in attendance, that’s how big this event is.
The purse for the feature race was $214,000, with the winner getting $120,000.
Before the feature race, there was a parade of drummers, bands, dancers and stilt walkers. This hour-long entertainment spectacle was a feast of sound, movement and colour. This only added to the already carnival atmosphere as throngs of spectators ringed the track. As the feature race nears, the crowd is noticeably larger. There’s no admission fee for the grounds, so everyone just pulls up, finds a spot and sets up their picnic. For those not tailgating, food and drink vendors were plentiful.
THE EARLY WINNERS:
One of the regional owners from Trinidad, had three race wins from the nine-race card. Perhaps he’s grooming a future Gold Cup winner.
It’s getting late in the day now. The first race started at 1:30 pm and it’s around 6:45 now. We’ve been in our seats since noon but we’re on island time, so the schedule of events is just a “recommendation.” No one cares, the place is electric. There was a lot of wagering throughout the day, and some are scrambling to get their last-minute bets in. The excitement is building, people are on the edge of their seats. The race will be contested over 1800 meters (8.95 furlongs.) They run on turf here and in a clockwise direction. Trudy picked the race winner but didn’t place a bet, (sigh)
The race lived up to the hype, very fast and quite competitive.
There’s one more race after the feature once the buzz dies down. The hard-core gamblers and those who wanted to party into the night stuck around while other spectators were beginning to leave. Traffic on this day is a nightmare. The roads leading to the track were closed earlier in the day, now they’re open and it’s bumper to bumper everywhere. Patrons had been encouraged to use public transport or be dropped off at the track. We opted to park about a mile away and walk. We joined the hundreds who simply walked back to their homes, cars or hotels.
NEXT DAY COOL DOWN:
An early morning sea bath is part of the racehorses training and wellness regimen. Most mornings, especially Sunday after the Saturday races, the grooms walk the horses across the street down to Browne’s Beach. It’s a long-standing ritual that has become one of the “must see” things in Barbados. Locals and tourists are able to get up close and interact with the horses (dependent on the horses’ disposition that day of course.)
This was such a great day, truly the biggest sporting event on the island. I’m not sure of the crowd size (I’ve yet to see an estimate) but it must’ve been in the tens of thousands. We’re already looking forward to next year’s event.