Already renowned for fine rum and fancy cigars, Cuba is carving out a new luxury niche that is attracting Latin American elites to the communist-run island: thoroughbred jumping horses.
By importing colts and fillies from the Netherlands, Cuban trainers are creating prized competitors capable of fetching more than $40,000 from buyers at private auctions, with much of the proceeds going back to the government-led equine enterprise.
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At an auction last month at the National Equestrian Club, well-heeled horse collectors gathered in the tropical air to sip wine and raise their bidding paddles, hoping to find a champion among the Dutch Warmbloods paraded before them.
By evening's end, 31 horses sold for a total of about $435,000 to buyers from Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, the Netherlands and Mexico.
"The great advantage is that they are already in the Americas," said Cecilia Pedraza, a Mexico City collector who bought several of the Dutch Warmbloods. "In addition, they have been trained very well. They are advanced for their age, very well-behaved, perform concentrated jumps and have excellent blood lines."
Rufino Rivera, from Xalapa, the capital of Mexico's Gulf coast state of Veracruz, paid about $17,000 for a horse he hopes will follow the path of Aristotelis, a prize-winning jumper he bought at the club's first auction six years ago.
Cuba's tradition of horse breeding and training dates to the 16th century, but after the 1959 communist revolution, Fidel Castro's government banned horse racing along with gambling and professional sports. Cuba continued to participate in amateur equestrianism, producing top-notch horse riders and trainers. But the costly sport slipped into decline in the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union provoked an economic crisis that made it hard to care for the animals.
Then, starting in 2005, Cuba began seeing horses as a way to gain badly needed foreign currency. It began to import Dutch Warmbloods around age 1½, then train them for competitive jumping before selling them at age 3.
In the days before an auction, jockeys and trainers like Jose Luis Vaquero can be seen brushing their purebred wards' coats and braiding their manes so that "everything is perfect."
"You have to take care of the horse, look after it every day," Vaquero said.
The National Equestrian Club is run by Flora and Fauna, a state business that promotes the island's natural resources. It keeps 117 horses in stables in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana.
Cuba, which splits proceeds from the auction with a Dutch equine company, uses much of its share to fund a new initiative to breed the horses locally rather than have to import animals at great expense.
Willy Arts, the head of the Royal Dutch Sport Horse association's North American wing, said there is growing demand for high-quality show horses and Cuba's program could be important to people in the Western Hemisphere looking to purchase them at more accessible prices.
Cuba complains bitterly about training world-class athletes who leave to make millions for themselves in other countries. If successful, the new equine initiative would produce four-hooved performers whose success only means more revenue for the program that produces them.
Nearly two dozen mares currently are part of the breeding effort. Last year, three horses born through the insemination program were sold at prices ranging from $39,000 to $50,000, said Maydet Vega, a veterinarian who oversees equine programs at Rancho Azucarero, the horse-breeding center west of Havana where the artificial insemination program is being developed.
Breeding foals in Cuba has the additional advantage of allowing horses to adapt to Cuba's sweltering heat and humidity from birth, she said.
"It's important to be able to produce them on the continent," Vega said. "They can adapt to the tropical conditions of our climate so people can have them in all countries in the Americas."