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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Caballos y gallos

Coming from a so called 'horsey background' means that throughout my travels , much attention is paid to the horse culture that exists here in Mexico, and how it differs greatly to the type that I am so familiar with. The style of horsemanship here is much more akin to or the same as the wild west type that we have seen in cowboy and Indian films. Things like rodeos or ' Jaripeos' are common place here, although unfortunately I haven't had the chance to be able to make it to one for one reason or another. I always seem to have made plans to do something else when they come around.

I had also heard that an underground horse racing scene existed in the Isthmus, where two horse owners would bet against each other and then race their two horses against each other over a short track. I did some enquiring and eventually met someone who knew someone else that regulary attended the races. They aren't publicised very much, and few people seem to attend, so you have to know some one who is involved to find out where and when the meets take place. They generally happen out in the countryside , so I wasn't likely to be able to find it by myself. I got word last week that a meet was going to take place on Sunday so we made plans to go and check it out.

The race took place in a town about 40 minutes away in a town called La Ventosa or The Windy. The area is filled with turbines as strong winds blow through the area all year round. It's extremely open and flat with not a tree in sight, and as we drove along the high way in the car, the car rattled and swayed as the wind crashed against the sides. The road is regularly closed at this time of year as the many lorries that pass through are vunerable to tipping over in the high winds.

We eventually arrived at the racetrack, which was in a field on the outskirts of La Ventosa. Normally on arrival you have to pay a charge at the gate in order to enter the racetrack, but initially we passed through the gate unnoticed which is rather unnusual due to the fact that being the only 'whitey' around i stick out lick a sore thumb everywhere i go. As we made our way towards the track the organisers eventually noticed that we had walked through without paying the 50 pesos. The guy I was with quickly informed them that we were in fact horse owners and that paying would not be necessary. He said it with such conviction that I think they believed him, or they thought that his will to not pay was so great that he did indeed deserve to avoid the payment. I on the other hand felt that it was pretty cheap having to pay 50 pesos to avoid annoying a lot of rather mean looking country folk and getting buried in a hole somewhere and never being seen again. But in the end we saved 50 pesos and didn't get beaten up, so all in all it worked out pretty well!

Every country has its stereotypes, that when encountered by foreigners, really make the foreigners feel that they are in fact in that country. In Mexico some of those things for me include, the sombrero, well dressed men in stetson hats and pointy boots drinking tequila, mariachis singing tradional Mexican music and horses. Sunday at the races was a day filled with the stereotypes which make me feel like I am in Mexico. The day consisted of men in sombreros drinking beer and tequila and a mariachi band accompanying all the things that went on throughout the day. If you watch the video that i have attached, you can hear the mariachi band playing in the background.

So the actual races turned out to be very quick affairs, ran over a very short track, with each won lasting about 10 or 15 seconds. The interesting thing about the betting that takes place is that there are no bookies at the race. The people that are watching just bet against each other, even if it is against a total stranger. It works along the lines of shouting ' i bet 500pesos on that horse', which someone hears in the distance and shouts over 'ok, i bet 500 on the other horse!' As you can see, a lot of trust is involved in the transaction. No money is exchanged until the race is over, at which point the loser pays their opponent. Its obviously a 50-50 chance of winning. Bet 500 and you can win 500. Once i established how the betting worked, I started considering the possibility of conflict that could arise from large numbers of men betting against each other while drinking. It would become clear as the day progressed, that in this evironment, conflict is more than just a possibility, its an absolute certainty!

We watched a few races before someone suggested that we go and get something to eat and move on to a town called Espinal to go and see 'Los Peleas de Gallos.' or cock fighting. I had never been to see cock fighting before because i have to admit that it is not something which i would have ever thought of doing and as it is illegal in much of Europe i have never had the opportunity.

Here in Mexico it isn't illegal and is a cultural event which like bullfighting is controversial. I have spoken to two different people here who have went to see large concerts here in Mexico, and before the main act there has been cock fighting as a warm up. In Aguascalientes, a state capital, one of the city's principal concert halls is the cockfighting arena, the palenque. Palenques are very common throughout the country, with almost every major city having one, and are closely related to Mexican traditional music performers, such as Vicente Fernandez, and also being (as mentioned below) the stage for Pop artists as well. During the San Marcos Fair, well-known throughout Mexico, cockfights alternate with important concerts, where the singers or dancers perform from the cockpit. Many popular singers have performed there, e.g. Latin Grammy winners Alejandro Fernández and Alejandra Guzmán.

We arrived in Espinal after going and having our food and i followed the rest of the group to where the tournament was being held. We paid 50 pesos to get into a walled off yard like area where the arena was located. We had turned up about an hour or so before the contest started, so there were very few people sitting around the ring. We took up seats at the ring side and watched all of the 'galleros' preparing their birds. I was quite suprised as to the diversity of the spectators that turned up to watch. Young, old , men women, families and couples. Every type of person that you could imagine being there. The Fighting Cock is a breed of domestic fowl, originating in India more than 4,500 years ago. Breeders say it is a dignified, wild, tough-bodied bird. It is good for hunting and is easy to raise. There are many different breeds, and they are bred for strength and endurance.

Before the contest the cocks weight is measured. The reason for this is that much like a boxer, the cocks much match each other in weight in order to fight. The cocks are weighed by the judge using a two sided scale as well as being checked over. The fighting takes place inside a square pit . One side of the pit is painted red and the other side green. contests are held in a fighting pit, one side painted red and the other side green.

The tournament that we went too consisted of the owners bring four cocks each. There were four rounds of fights with each bird winning points for a win, and less points for a draw. I had absolutely no knowledge of how such a contest would function or what to expect. I was informed beforehand that each contest would have a 10 minute time limit, but that very few of the contests would last for that amount of time.

The contests started with two owners bringing their cocks into the ring, along with two others that were used to provoke the fighting cocks as part of warming up for the actual contest.The warm up consisted of the owners warming the ligaments in the cocks legs. This is done by the owners physically putting the birds legs in their mouths to heat them up , as well as stretching them with their hands.Then once they are warmed up the owners deliberately get them aggravated by letting them do a mock attack on another bird that is used specifically for that purpose. They hold the birds close to each other to let them get to within pecking distance before pulling them back, over and over again. This action also gives the audience an idea on which cock to bet on. At this point the crowd start making their bets. Its followed the same system which i encountered at the horse racing. You just bet against someone else in the crowd who agrees the same price and wants to bet against the bird you want to bet on. The closest thing i can compare it to, is an old fashioned stock market floor when all the brokers are shouting at each other and doing their trades. The whole crowd start yelling about their proposed bets-'100 pesos!voy rojo/verde!'( 50 pesos, i go red/green). Every continues screaming and shouting till everyone that can find a bet has agreed one with someone else. Bets are taken from all over the place, quite often from someone who is at the other side of the arena.

I spoke to a few of the owners about how many birds they had and the work that was involved in preparing them.One of the things i learned which i had been unaware of is that the birds where armed with a sharpened steel spur which is used during the matches. Each owner has a box of standard spurs of different lengths. Before the match an agreement is made on which spur will be used during the contests. Once the birds are warmed up the owners bring the chosen spur into the arena. The spurs are then checked by the judges. They are carefully measured and checked for poison. They all must be of uniform length (about one inch), and are cleaned by rubbing a lime on the blade to remove any toxins.

The spurs are tied on to the rooster's back claw with string. It is inspected by the judge before the fight starts. The spurs are honed razor sharp, and don't take very long to cut through feathers and flesh, once the fight has started.

The fight starts with the owners holding the two roosters beak to beak in the middle of the area, puffing out their colorful feathers.The birds touch each other before the owners back up to opposite ends of the arena and dropping the birds onto the floor. At this point the birds take off charging towards each other before slamming into other, stabbing with their beaks, crashing and slashing until one dies.

The matches are pretty brutal and are usually over in a few minutes. In the event one of the cocks goes down, but is still alive, the judge counts if its beak touches the ground before the count of 10. If not, the birds are repositioned in the middle of the ring to start the fight again. If the birds are unwilling to fight, there is a 10 minute time limit, at which point the contest is called as a draw.

The atmosphere when the birds are fighting is absolutely electric as the crowd really gets into it. I suppose its the same as any sport where people are betting money, they money at stake gives everyone a lot more interest in the possible outcome of the match.

The excitement can get to fever pitch, and predictably, when everyone is full of adrenaline, drinking and betting their salaries, fights are very likely to break out. In the time that we were there, we watched a few birds fight, and then intermittently, watched the spectators fighting each other, over unsettled bets and perceived dishonesty. At one point a fight broke out in true old fashioned film style, where one man hit another man, and within seconds everyone seemed to be hitting the person beside them, as well as throwing and beating each other with wooden chairs. At which point the judge was in the ring calmly speaking into the microphone asking everyone to settle down. At one point he laughed and was shouting for security, which obviously at this cock fight, didn't exist.

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