They start spectacularly, as dusk falls and the tide goes out: the Sanlúcar de Barrameda horse races began more than a century and a half ago, and have been declared of International Tourist Interest.
85 horses will take part in Spain’s oldest racing event this August
This year marks 170 years since the first races were held in the riverside Cadiz town, in 1845. They will take place from 12 – 14 and 26 – 28 August, and the event has a rosy outlook for the future, thanks to enthusiastic participation by all ages – even children put up casetas (small tents) on the beach.
The races, which are one of the high points of Andalucia’s summer calendar, can be watched from balconies or from the beach – there is no admission fee. This event draws thousands of visitors to the town every August, to watch the horse races live, with Doñana Park, on the other side of the Guadalquivir river estuary, as a natural backdrop. This year 85 horses are taking part.
The dates are planned around tide timetables, since race days have to coincide with a good low tide, so that the horses can race along the beach with a sufficiently wide area of sand on which to compete.
During these six days in August, 23 races of thoroughbred horses are held on this unusual “racetrack”: the damp sand which is left when the sea retreats between Bajo de Guía and Las Piletas beaches. In fact, low tide determines both the dates of the races, which vary each year, as well as the starting times.
The races usually start at around 6.30pm and finish at around 9.30pm and are watched by around 30,000 people. It’s a magnificent sight: sunset, the horses galloping along the shores, and Doñana Park behind.
The year’s event has a budget of around 500,000 euros, of which 147.200 is allocated to prize money.
The Sociedad de Carreras de Caballos (Horse-racing Society), which organizes the event, installs an enclosure at the finishing line, in the area known as Playa de las Piletas, where bets can be placed on the races.
According to mythology, Phoebus Apollo, the Sun God, relaxed by untethering his fire horses from his chariot on the Sanlúcar coast. Some historians attribute the origin of the races to when horses competed to transport the fish, a hypothesis which is dismissed by others because those horses were big, strong, heavy animals, not the fast, lighter ones favoured by the English. What is agreed by all is that horses, seafood cuisine and enjoying summer afternoons on the beach in this part of Andalucia have always been essential ingredients of this event.
At the end of the 19th century, the aristocracy flocked to Sanlúcar to bathe in the waters, turning the seaside town into one of the first Spanish tourist resorts, along with Santander and San Sebastián. The horse races have been celebrated since 1845 and today many top professional jockeys compete in them. As time has gone on, the competition has grown in prestige and variety and these days, there are different race categories for jockeys (profesionales), gentlemen (aficionados) y amazonas (women).
In 1981 the races experienced a resurgence when the old Sociedad de Caballos de Sanlúcar de Barrameda was re-founded, and has organised the event since then. Today they are southern Spain’s most important sporting, tourist and social summer engagement.
The event offers an ideal opportunity to explore the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a town of beautiful mansions situated at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river. Andalucia’s great river played an important part in the discovery of the New World: Cristóbal Colón left from Sanlúcar on his third voyage to the Américas, and Magellan on his first circumnavigation of the world.
The town flourished thanks to trade with the Americas and then found further economic prosperity with the influence of the aristocracy and wine-making companies, which drove forward its economy and culture, a heritage which marked the urban aspect of the town forever.
The races are also a great opportunity to enjoy the superb local gastronomy, whose main protagonists are manzanilla sherry, made from grapes grown in the area, and prawns. In addition to the sporting events, other events are organized to complement the Sanlúcar summer.