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A Day At Easter Island's Horse Races (PHOTOS)

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EASTER ISLAND
Paul Brady

There are no elaborate hats to mark the once-a-year running of the 'A'ati Hoi, or Horse Races, during Easter Island's annual Tapati Festival. There's no grandstand at which to grandstand. And there's no bend in the 700-meter course, which is set on a dirt road along the picturesque southern shore of this remote outpost that nevertheless offers some of the best horse racing this side of Kentucky.

The 'A'ati Hoi, which were held this year on February 7, is the highlight of the Festival for many locals, thanks to a bounty of gambling action. It's a highlight for many visitors too, thanks to a casual atmosphere and the chance to get right up next to the rail for a series of bareback races, many ridden by teenage jockeys doing their best to tame the wild spirits of local horses whose ancestors once roamed free across the island.

The day starts relatively early, around 10:30 a.m., before the sun becomes too fierce, with the typical trappings of racing: watering down the track, the placing of bets, the slow gathering of the crowds as they take up positions along the course, hauling coolers, umbrellas and cameras.

A super-locutor, or emcee, is working the PA, informing the crowd that races of both 350 and 700 meters will be run, on a course that slopes downhill roughly until the 300 meter mark, before it climbs a similar shallow grade to the long-distance finish line. After reading out the weather report -- 22º C with some clouds -- he's sure to mention that, yes, LAN Flight 841, the only one to Santiago on Thursday, is scheduled to leave the island.

With little fanfare and no gunshot, a group of four young riders takes off on the first heat of the day and the races are underway. As in the U.S., the contests offer a flash of action, terror and excitement before a lengthy pause between runs. Tourists and locals alike lean on fenceposts and press against the barbed wire stretching along the course for the best views. Near the 700-meter finish line, a few wood-fired grills get smoking as chicken and sausage are cooked up for lunch.

With only four or five riders per heat, the time of each run seems less important than who finishes first, and a very serious clipboard wielding man is at the line to take down the important details after each finish. Nevertheless, these horses -- and their jockeys -- are deadly serious about performance: It takes less than a minute for winners to run the 700 meters; the 350-meter contests are, of course, even faster.

As the dozen or so races wind down, the crowd seems unwilling to get up to leave, having just settled in for a day outdoors. With waves crashing against the shore, the sun shining and ample provisions, there's no reason for the fun to end just because the action has.

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