Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Li'l Gaucho

Machismo is no match for a little gaucho in a blue beret, writes Marian McGuinness. 
It was like an afternoon on the backlot of a spaghetti western. Mataderos, Spanish for slaughterhouse, is an outlying suburb of Buenos Aires where the colonial fringe butts roughly against the ring of shanty towns. It is as it sounds.
I half expected to see Burt Lancaster staggering down the wide-dirt road on his way to the O.K. Corral.
The white-washed, graffitied wall of the historic Mercado Nacional de la Hacienda, the enormous cattle market that for more than 100 years has serviced Argentina's beef industry, stretches along part of the Avenue Lisandro de la Torre. And this afternoon the street is lined with hundreds of excited people.
Proud, dressed-to-the-hilt gauchos sit astride their handsome horses. The gauchos are manly, toned and champing at the bit to prove their horsemanship in the Carrera de Sortija - the Race of the Ring - the traditional ride of skill dating back to the Spanish conquistadores.
Towards the end of the sanded road a tiny metal hoop dangles from the middle of an arched frame. Horses paw the ground. The gauchos eye the crowd and jauntily adjust their berets. They're checking out which young woman to present the sortija to if they're skilful enough to score one. Blood is pumping. Machismo fills the late summer air.
Horse and rider appear as one. Like a centaur, the gaucho waits his turn to race at breakneck speed, standing in his stirrups, left hand gripping the reins, right hand positioned to spear the ring with a pen-sized lance.
But it's not one of the manly men who wins the hearts of the girls on the sideline.
His name is whispered down the length of the road. Watched over by his proud uncle, a chico in a bright blue beret is jigging down the road on his piebald pony. His lance is tucked in his belt as he whips his pony to a gallop with a plait of cane.
His tiny boots hold firmly in the stirrups, his shirt sleeves are rolled up and his neckerchief swings on his tiny shoulders. He has the look of a cherub.
At three years old, Sebastian has been riding for just three months. It's his debut in the Race of the Ring, and he's already a master.
His uncle makes one last tug to his beret and then he's off. The Littlest Gaucho jigs towards the golden ring. The crowd is going wild. With one hand on the reins, Sebastian draws the lance from his belt and deftly skewers the prize.
Ole! The crowd erupts. The Littlest Gaucho raises the sortija high in victory. At three years old, he's not looking out for a beautiful maiden to present his trophy to.
He's too busy grinning from ear to ear. He's the most handsome gaucho-in-waiting.

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