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ON THE RACING ROAD: The racing is pretty honest 80 per cent of horses are out to win these days'.

Byline: Nicholas Godfrey

NOT long left on the racing road as it meanders into the Philippines, where finding a race meeting to attend is a straightforward exercise, as they race six days a week, 52 weeks a year.

On the other hand, actually locating a racecourse, despite this plethora of fixtures, might prove slightly more of a challenge. There are just two of them, both dirt tracks, racing Tuesday to Sunday on alternate weeks.

Santa Ana racetrack is simple to find, situated as it is right in the middle of Manila in the district of Makati, commercial centre of a chaotic capital, a shopping-mall metropolis in a state of near-perpetual gridlock. I could walk to Santa Ana from my hotel, where a heavy security presence

- roadblock, armed guards, bodyscan on entry plus bag search

- manages to produce the opposite of peace of mind.

Thanks to a shrewd piece of planning, my visit to Manila coincides with a week when the other track is in operation. And, while this one is operated by the Manila Jockey Club, it is situated 40 or more kilometres north of the city centre, stuck just past the middle of nowhere at the San Lazaro Leisure Park, adjacent to the town of Carmona.

With no public transport worth the name going that way, a 2,500 peso (pounds 25) taxi is the only option. "You will need to allow at least two hours because of the traffic," says the concierge. Just to be on the safe side, I leave at 3.30pm ahead of an eight-race card scheduled to start at 6pm. Barely 30 minutes later, the taxi zips through Carmona to a much leafier area of residential developments and parkland. "Less pollution here," says the awestruck taxi driver. There could hardly be any more.

Foreign visitors to San Lazaro are few and far between, with the result that the sociable members of the Manila Jockey Club are falling over themselves to make me feel at home with the mother of all meet and greets.

In a matter of minutes, I am introduced to deputy chief executive, racecourse manager, senior handicapper, racing-channel broadcaster and leading trainer. Uncle Tom Cobley is absent, but unlike the racecourse chairman, he doesn't phone one of his underlings to apologise for not being there in person.

A young whippersnapper is dispatched to collect a mounted map of the racecourse facilities. The deputy CEO, Rear-Admiral Juan de Leon, pointer in hand, proceeds to enlighten me on the various buildings, stable blocks and paddocks. It feels a little like being back in the classroom' perhaps there will be an exam later on.

One of the racecourse officials is a greying gent by the name of Francisco Fernando, who worked on The Curragh for a spell in the 1970s, when he says he rode in a number of races in Ireland. "One time I was following Lester," he tells me. "All I could see was his backside, it was so high."

Racecourse manager Jose Alfredo Valdes then takes us on what his boss describes as a "windshield tour" of the premises, which involves a visit to a show home overlooking the track in the Canyon Ranch development prior to a quick spin around the on-site training centre. Unlike Canyon Ranch, the latter is by no means at the luxury end of the market.

Returning to the grandstand, I am treated to a routine from broadcaster Jay-R Cabansag, a Filipino Derek Thompson who, to the delight of the Rear-Admiral, entertains us with a variety of mock race calls in various languages, from English to Japanese and Korean. He should be on a bigger stage somewhere else. Or just somewhere else.

A few tables away, trainers are drawing lots for post position ahead of Sunday's stakes race, the all-imported championship. "Although we have studs in the provinces, most of the stock comes from abroad," explains trainer Jose Panhilio.

"Our racing is improving. It's ready to explode - we've had a big increase in prize-money. In the last five years it has gone up by 15 per cent per year, and the quality of breeding and horses is getting up there."

The locals clearly like a bet, with the average turnover for a moderate night meeting in the region of 23-25 million pesos (pounds 250,000- pounds 270,000), and going up to around 40 million for top stakes races. A multitude of exotic wagers are on offer, among them daily Pick 6s, daily doubles, pentafectas and the super six. The last two, unfathomably popular, require you to name either the first five or the first six home in the right order.

There is, however, a problem with illegal gambling, according to Panhilio. "If our handle is 50m, then there must be the same amount in illegal gambling," he says. "If we could control it, the handle would go through the roof.

"Basically, though, the racing is pretty honest. There used to be problems - you would find people pulling their mounts - but I would say 80 per cent are out to win now after the increases in prize-money."

Among the remaining 20 per cent, presumably, was the owner who threatened to shoot a jockey who disobeyed his instructions to throw a race. But that was the dim, distant, lawless past, of course, way back in 2003.

SAN LAZARO'S bijou stand is modelled on Singapore's Kranji, only smaller and nowhere near as smart. Then again, any more space would be wasted, as only around 300 people attend tonight's meeting, the majority preferring to do their betting in the nation's 330-plus betting shops. Even a big day attracts only around 4,000 to the track.

Not before time, we are close to the first race. A recorded version of the national anthem is piped through the stand' while the laidback, unfussy locals stand up, there is still much laughing and joking to be heard. Try that in America. Although the first race is due off at 6pm, it is nearly half an hour late. As was the case in Thailand earlier on the racing road, a couple of horses are in the stalls for around 20 minutes more than their rivals, which probably explains why one of them loses about ten lengths when someone finally bothers to open the gate.

The horse in question is soon nearly a furlong adrift, which isn't bad going in a five-furlong event. He is barely cantering as he passes the post miles behind the 1-10 winner.

Later races prove more competitive, very much akin to US-style racing, but there is still a shock for the second race, which takes place on an inner circuit I had assumed must be a training track. Forget Chester - this is more like the Palio in Siena, although thankfully they don't race on pavement in the Philippines.

The vigilance of the local stewards is demonstrated later in the evening when one particular horse, sent off favourite for a sprint, is banned for an indefinite period for posting a time more than three seconds slower than its previous start over course and distance, a threshold that triggers automatic suspension for the horse.

Following a few more races, the Rear-Admiral grabs me for a stint on Philippines TV, Jay-R moving aside for a few seconds as I am asked what I make of their set-up based on the briefing he had given me a couple of hours earlier. This is worrying, for Royal Ascot it ain't. In fact, Wolverhampton it ain't, either.

Then again, as the lights of the city twinkle in the distance and the occasional bat divebombs from the roof of the stand, it is a fairly unique place to watch horseracing.

That's what I tell the Rear-Admiral. Even if the content isn't up to much, surely I deserve an A+ for tact and diplomacy.

The journey so far . . . and the Philippines stats

Racecourses 2

Racedays 310

Racehorses 1,900

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Pictures: JANE GODFREY
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jan 8, 2006
Words:1326
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