It has been a long time coming and in early 2019 many in Saint Lucia and beyond look forward to progress of a particular major project in Vieux Fort. The Royal Saint Lucia Turf Club is not only set to be a world class circuit, but also forms part of the larger Pearl of the Caribbean project, a huge vision that provides for a new casino, marina, resorts and new shopping and residential property to complement the
new race track.
In the works for years, the frustration that horse racing enthusiasts have felt over the speed of the project has been offset by the promise of the ultimate vision for the new track, one that will be the first of its kind in Saint Lucia, and a circuit that could soon be the envy of all other nations around the Caribbean. But while there’s understandably much pride and excitement surrounding the realisation of the new track and the US$2.6 billion Pearl of the Caribbean project as a whole, there remains much distance to cover before the finish line. And as this project progresses, it’s appropriate to review the history of other tourism magnets like this race track, locally, and discern what project planners can take forward from the lessons of recent history in the region.
What the Project Will Offer
At the core of Saint Lucia’s future race track is a strong foundation surrounding its planning: from the financial backing of Desert Star Holdings, to the addition of personnel like Sam Elliot, who left his post as director of racing at Parx to become chief executive of the Turf Club in April 2018, to even the ‘wow factor’ of celebrities like Prince Harry turning the first sod on the new works in November 2015 while making a visit to the nation.
Alongside the races themselves, world famous horse racing events like the Belmont Stakes in the USA, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France and the Melbourne Cup in Australia all draw artists, fashionistas and celebrities alongside the business community. With the project’s stated aspiration of attracting foreign racing enthusiasts — with a particular focus on the booming Chinese market — there is rightfully much excitement about the future.
Nonetheless, just as recognition of the positives that other regional nations have achieved via horse racing is essential, so too must the risks be fairly recorded. True, sports advocates would surely say that having a new race track is always better than not having a new race track but, distinct from the construction of a new school or hospital that has clear and enduring public benefits, the Pearl of the Caribbean has a higher hurdle to clear when it comes to return on investment.
Its construction has been championed by the Chastanet government as a victory against the high rates of youth unemployment in the nation, especially with the Pearl’s proposed location in the south of Saint Lucia. There is fair optimism here, certainly, but it is also something of a ‘wait and see’, especially when factoring in its impact on the current economy in the south.
A History of Horse Racing in the Caribbean
All the way back in the 1800s, horses were galloping in competition across Barbados. The modern era of the industry began in 1982, with the creation of the Barbados Gold Cup at a horse track today recognised as a leading attraction throughout the Caribbean.Alongside the Gold Cup, the now iconic Garrison Savannah Racetrack outside the nation’s capital of Bridgetown plays host to the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, an event that has grown in recognition year by year, to today serving alongside the Gold Cup as a cornerstone of Barbados’ claim to be the horse racing epicentre of the Caribbean.
Undoubtedly the success of Barbados in adding a new angle to its tourism appeal is an inspiration for any Saint Lucians in the local industry who relish what the new track on this island could mean for domestic business and tourism in Saint Lucia. However, the Caribbean family’s experience with horse racing has not been uniform, and not always like the success the Barbadians have enjoyed.
Jamaica’s racing industry has known some real turbulence through its history. While Barbados was making preparations for its big push into the racing world during the 1980s, Jamaica’s Caymanas Park track has since been alleged to be a hub of organised crime activity. The presence of an unsavoury element around Jamaica’s only racing track was reinforced when notorious gangster Dennis Barth was shot dead at the park during a shootout with police in 1978.
This episode highlights a difficult reality. The expansion of the horse racing industry anywhere must also confront the universal challenge of corruption. While horse racing may be the sport of kings, history has shown it is also one where high profile scandals have seen dubious bookies and criminals make massive illicit profits, often at the expense of the regular attendee and fan.
There is no suggestion that such an episode will visit Saint Lucia with this new track. Nor that modern measures cannot go a long way to combating illicit activity in the industry. But instead it’s a reality that the sober identification of issues now offers the opportunity to proactively address them before they have the chance to actually arise.
Building on Regional Experiences with Experienced Nations
As well as a notable addition to Saint Lucia, the race track will bring a new dynamic to the region’s racing history. Alongside the aforementioned nations, Martinique, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago have all had race tracks. So too the island of Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. While Saint Lucia will have to compete for the racing tourist dollar, collectively there’s the opportunity to further build ‘Brand Caribbean’ as a whole. The global network of horse racing and the prestige surrounding it, makes it a natural fit for enticing tourists.As the newest track with immense momentum behind it, Saint Lucia has a real chance, through the Pearl of the Caribbean, to emerge out front of the pack when it comes to local leadership in this sport. In doing so, not only could this be a hugely exciting new chapter for national sports and tourism, but for regional sport all around the Caribbean.