Brazilian social elite mourns crisis -- and no champagne

Sebastian Smith

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - From the exclusive members' room overlooking Rio's stunning horse racing track and the sheer cliffs of the Corcovado, Brazil's crisis seems remote. But even high society suffers -- in its own way.

"We used to drink champagne," says Teresa Aczel Quattrone, 70, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, pearl necklace and chunky gold bracelets at Sunday's Grande Premio Brasil, the country's biggest horse race of the year. "Now, we drink beer."

At first glance, the scene in the members-only Salao das Rosas, or Roses Room, looks closer to the 1920s, when the Jockey Club hippodrome was built, than the increasingly chaotic Brazil of 2017. It can be hard remembering this is the same country where President Michel Temer risks tumbling in a corruption scandal and the economy, with unemployment at nearly 14 percent, is in shambles.

Under a chandelier, Brazil's upper crust tuck into an endless loop of nibbles and alcohol brought by waiters on silver trays. Financial constraints may mean the ice buckets contain beer instead of champagne, but still it's chilled and comes served in tall glasses.

The dress code is Brazilian-style glamor: all over-the-top hats, revealing dresses, and every telltale sign of cosmetic surgery. In mid-afternoon, seven willowy models in flowing long dresses enter the room for no other apparent reason than to add to the already sumptuous atmosphere.

And in a final throwback to the Brazil of decades past, the almost exclusively Afro-Brazilian cleaning staff, serving almost exclusively white guests, wear traditional black maids' uniforms with white lace trim.

- Escapism -

The disconnect between the gilded few and the mass of Brazilians struggling through the aftershocks of a two-year recession was not lost on all club members.

"Despite this glamor that you see, the city has the worst unemployment in Brazil. This doesn't reflect Rio de Janeiro," conceded IT specialist Flavio Duarte, 49, who came with his wife and horse-loving 10-year-old daughter Luana.

However, he said the annual party for the Grande Premio race survives because the event and the magnificent racecourse remind Rio residents of their country's better side. "They come because it's traditional and they don't want to lose it the way they already lost so many traditions."

Cedric Sa, a 70-year-old retired engineer, described the extravagant get-together as "a sort of carnival for the rich."

"It's good for people to forget all the bad things happening for a day," said his wife, Vera Sa.

Neither had any sympathy for Temer, even if the scandal-plagued conservative leader has often been portrayed as the ultimate establishment figure.

"If he's brought down, the party here would be even bigger," Cedric Sa laughed.

- Tricky bet -

The Grande Premio Brasil makes a full circuit of the Rio flat track, covering 2,400 meters (2,624 yards) under the eye of Christ the Redeemer on the summit of the Corcovado. It's one of only five races in Latin America that count as qualifiers for the prestigious annual Breeders' Cup -- an international championship of champions next taking place this November in California.

John Fulton, who represents the Breeders' Cup, said Rio has "one of the most beautiful tracks you'd find anywhere in the world."

But the giant country does not fulfil its potential in the sport -- as in many areas -- producing only 2,000 thoroughbred foals a year, down from 3,000 as a result of the recession. By comparison, much smaller Argentina produces about 8,000 foals annually, Fulton said.

Still, the Rio crowd filled the grandstands and spread out on the grass areas below, excitement mounting as the minutes ticked down to the big race.

Then to everyone's surprise, the winner was a rank outsider, Voador Magee, disappointing those who'd backed favorites like No Regrets -- and proving again that there are no easy bets in today's Brazil.

What to Read Next