Mark Wignall | Cleaning up Caymanas racing track
The 1970s was the Golden Age of ganja in Jamaica. Many business icons of today got their seed money from the illicit export of the weed during that decade.
'Elbow' operated a nightclub in the Cross Roads area and I was a regular there, especially on the weekends, where I would sit in with real, petty and wannabe criminals, and listen to their dark histories and deals to come. Elbow was also into small exports of pressed weed, two to three hundred pounds every six months.
Ganja could be sourced from St Ann or Westmoreland for J$25 per pound. For an extra $10 per pound one could have it pressed like thick tiles.
Financially, I was fairly comfortable, often earning in one week what took my friends many months to make. But, among the seedy patrons of the club I would have been one of only a few who was actually performing honest, non-illicit work.
One late Friday evening, Elbow said to me: "Mark, come with me. Mi a go downtown."
In 10 minutes we turned on Bustamante Highway and entered Tivoli Gardens. It was my first time there. Elbow had contacts with someone at the US Embassy and he sold visas at the time. Tivoli was one of his biggest customers.
At just about that time, the well-connected hierarchy of the Tivoli criminal organisation had pretty much taken control of the results of certain races at Caymanas Park. At that time, the politics and horse racing shared main features. Corruption and thuggery.
Powerful men in the Tivoli underground would have their regular jockey friends. Some jockeys who were late to come to the party were seized and even roughed up if they resisted the arranged results of selected races.
The irony of this is, the first and only time I ever visited Caymanas Park was in 1976 and I did so based on information on two races from a friend outside of Tivoli. It was supposed to be two 'business' races. I spent about $110 in total and the horses never even showed. I bore my loss as the price for learning to believe in race touts. In 1976, a brand new, frost-free 10 cu ft fridge could be bought for $300, so, $110 was not exactly small change.
For many years Caymanas Park was being run like a roadside patty shop and the same perception of corruption followed the bookmaking industry. Every new entrant into the money class wanted to own a horse or two but the system somehow never quite got together for the welfare of what mattered most. The collective care of the horse and the development of the racing industry.
Although our politics has stirred in trying to move away from its sordid past, bookmakers have remained in their backward thinking, making money from the racing product but failing to put back and add to the collective whole in developing the product.
It is my understanding that bookmakers in other jurisdictions lend adequate financial support to the racing product. Not so in Jamaica. The new entity Caymanas Track Limited (CTL) pays about 12 per cent of its revenues in purses. But who pays to house the 1,300 horses, light and water, and maintain the racetrack with daily watering and grading since outside of race days the track is used for exercise every day? The same CTL.
What about the bookmakers? They are like burrs on a woollen pants. Hangers on.
In the 1980s, a tout in a bar in Harbour View was able to convince me to make a racehorse bet. I said to him, "I don't know much about the performances. I am buying jockeys. Take this $5 and buy Bartley in the first and Hosang in the second."
When he returned it was a totally different double he had placed. The reason he gave? "Mr Wignall, yu nuh know dem ting yah". Next door was the OTB.
Well, Bartley and Hosang won and the double paid $125.60. The tout had to run out of the bar after I finished cussing him out. My $5 bet would have given me well over $600! In today's money that would be close to $130,000.
We have moved far from the days when criminality controlled the sport. But the bookmakers need to step up their game.