Trophy and heartbreak: A day at the races with Charles Oliveira

Trophy and heartbreak: A day at the races with Charles Oliveira

CAMPINAS, Brazil — It’s a hot Saturday morning, and the Viracopos Hippodrome is packed. Hundreds of people have gathered from all over the country on Sept. 9 with their best horses for one of Brazil’s most important harness races of the season, including a UFC star.

“It’s really him,” a man tells his friend as a baby blue 2500 RAM Laramie parks next to a white and blue truck for this storied form of horse racing. It’s hard not to notice the car, followed by a baby blue Range Rover Evoque, and the man behind its wheel. He needs no introduction — it really is former UFC lightweight champion Charles Oliveira.

UFC 294 is 43 days away, and Oliveira will embark to Abu Dhabi on Oct. 11, leaving Sao Paulo with his gigantic entourage to once again challenge for the 155-pound title against his most recent nemesis, Islam Makhachev. Racing horses is another passion, though, and judging by his pre-race emotions, it may be an even bigger passion than actual fighting.

Oliveira grew up in Guaruja and always had a thing for horses. He realized the dream of buying his parents a farm, and he started breeding animals through his MMA earnings. But they were nothing like these horses. With all the money he’s made from fighting and sponsorship deals, the UFC superstar can afford to spend six figures on racing horse accoutrements.

“It’s a horse that has gigantic heart and never gives up,” says Oliveira, sitting in the back of his truck with two of his most expensive horses, waiting for race time. “I love harness racing.”

Those horses, Oliveira says, train as hard as mixed martial artists.

Charles Oliveira celebrates
Guilherme Cruz

“It’s like a fighter, training from Monday through Saturday, and only resting on Sundays,” he says. “It’s so much work. They use ice and acupuncture like we do. They have sparring day, how we call actual racing training. It really is a unique horse.”

Marcos Dahy, the jockey on Oliveira’s team, is the man responsible for taking care of and training horses for races, while “do Bronx” prepares for his own battles at Chute Boxe Sao Paulo. But Oliveira also loves to get in his cart and race whenever he has the chance. Earlier this year, he competed a day before flying to Canada to fight Beneil Dariush. He was going to compete this afternoon as well, however his horse suffered an injury earlier this week.

India Mia, a different mare Oliveira bought in Argentina, secured a trophy in the race the former UFC champ was supposed to be in, finishing second. But Ocelot, his prized horse, will compete at 5:00 p.m. in the final race of the day, and that’s all he can think about.

“I don’t get nervous before a fight,” Oliveira says. “I get a bit anxious when it’s time and whatnot, but for a race, man, I can’t sleep. I stayed up all night, walking around the house thinking [about the race] and asking God to bless us. I have a huge dream of becoming champion [on this Cup]. I’ve placed second once, I’ve won others, but not this Cup.

“I work my ass off, I help others in any way I can to have a great race. I had a busy week with shooting [promotional UFC videos and interviews] and training, but I was training with my head on this day.”

A horse of this caliber costs more than $50,000, the same amount Oliveira made in a post-fight bonus for his first-round win over Dariush in June. “Do Bronx” holds the record for most bonuses in UFC history, which has helped him to build a team of valuable horses and provide them the best care possible for moments like this.

Oliveira can’t stand still. His friends are laughing and having fun, eating some barbecue, however he’s simply pacing around in circles next to the truck. His mother notices he’s anxious and asks him sit down to sing a prayer. Oliveira’s six-year-old daughter Tayla loves Ocelot, and she joins him in the moment of faith.

“Just like I dream of becoming UFC champion again, I want to win this Cup too,” Oliveira says. “It has everything to happen today. It’s a tough race, there are great horses racing and I hope the best one wins — if God blesses us and it’s Ocelot, I’ll be very happy.”

Oliveira prays with his mother and daughter
Guilherme Cruz

The penultimate race is over, and the winning horse is named “Minotauro,” a good sign for superstitious MMA people. Ocelot was not in his best condition after suffering an injury earlier this year, but Oliveira feels confident. Ocelot has recorded a sterling time of 1:52 in more than eight previous races, so today might be the day Oliveira will finally win the Cup.

The moment of truth is minutes away — the main event, and Oliveira is tearing up. He turns to Tayla and asks God for his blessing, and she answers, “He will win, in the name of Jesus.” Oliveira whispers to Ocelot’s ears, “You’re ready. I know that.”

Dahy, Ocelot’s jockey, leaves with the horse, and the entire Oliveira crew is headed to the race track. But the UFC star chooses to walk a different direction. He can’t leave his truck without getting surrounded by fans thirsty for pictures, and this is not the ideal moment for that.

“I never get desperate about anything, but this final [race], brother … come on,” Oliveira tells a friend. “Humans can say they’re not feeling OK, that they have stomachache or any other pain, so you give them medicine, you do something about it. Horses can’t. How are they going to tell you? They can’t, and then it’s the moment of truth.”

The race starts and Oliveira prays. He wipes tears out of his eyes and prays some more. “What you give to the universe is what comes back to you,” he repeats over and over again. He walks to the finish line by his girlfriend and hears messages of encouragement from a people in attendance.

“You’ll win this one — and the belt,” a man says.

Five horses approach the finish neck and neck. The leader, Abra, crosses the line first, and Oliveira is in disbelief. Ocelot comes in fourth. Dozens of people invade the track, a sea of gray shirts celebrating Abra’s huge win, and the former UFC champ walks back to his truck.

The official time for the winner is 1:55, which upsets Oliveira even further, considering the times Ocelot has posted in the past. But what matters in the end is who was the fastest animal that day, and this time around Abra’s team will get bragging rights.

“The best [horse], the one that is better prepared [may not win], because sometimes he woke up not feeling OK,” Oliveira said. “It’s like all of us. It sucks, man.”

Oliveira is disappointed, and Tayla is heartbroken. “Do Bronx” asks his family and friends to leave, and they pack everything up. Ocelot arrives, and Oliveira helps detach the cart to calm the animal down. “Do Bronx” takes pictures with two kids before leaving, faking his best smile. He didn’t get the trophy he so badly wanted.

Soon, Oliveira will once again be under the bright lights for a main event at UFC 294.

Now, he has another reason to bring the grand prize home.

Guilherme Cruz

This article was originally published on