He was three days past his eighteenth birthday, having grown up in a country bordered on one side by a great ocean, on the other by the longest mountain range in the world, a country filled with diverse landscape and ecosystems. Yet, here he was, in the lush farmland of western Wisconsin, in a small college town dominated by English speaking people.
A freshman at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, with only a brother, Boris, nearly two years older, to rely upon for trusted information and directions in a new land and strikingly different culture. He watched television, picking up words here and there, gaining understanding of a new language in bits and pieces, little by little.
Francisco Bravo had arrived in the United States of America, in a culture full of surprises, good and bad, and time revealed it a rewarding place.
“I had been to Wisconsin before, as an exchange student,” Bravo recalled. “I had a girlfriend there and that made it a little easier to accept.” Three months in Baldwin, Wisconsin, had given him a small taste of what was to come.
“But it was very scary, leaving home,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would ever see my family again. There was a lot of uncertainty.”
Under those conditions, Bravo left Chile and started a new life, in Los Estados Unidos.
“My dad gave me a one-way ticket to the U.S. and a thousand dollars,” Bravo recalled. And a foundation for survival in the world.
“He taught us to work, and he was tough on us,” Bravo added. “He wanted us to get a good education, told us that would open opportunities.”
That instruction began in a private, Catholic school in Chile, in suburban Santiago, with strict guidelines, a base for what was to come later in the U.S., working as a bus boy in a supper club, later as a bartender, and during the summer months as a lineman for the local phone company, all of it alongside his university studies.
Hard work. The kind demanded on the farm by his father. Cleaning the barn. Minding the horses.
For the young man from South America, that background helped produce a degree in Animal Science from UW-River Falls, opening the door to a variety of opportunities in the horse world.
Bravo, 64, has become a well-known, successful and respected horseman in Shakopee since his arrival in 1988. He had broken thoroughbreds and was familiar with racing as a boy in Chile, but his father had prohibited his sons from attending the racetrack. “We match-raced in the neighborhood, but we couldn’t go to the racetrack,” Bravo said. “It was the wrong environment.”
Shortly after graduating college, he began handling show horses. “I got a job on a farm in North Dakota,” he said. “My intention was to stay three or four months and go back to Chile. I stayed for ten years.”
He met the woman he would marry, Lori. They later bought a farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. “We were doing very well,” he said. Despite a fast start with seven or eight state champion show horses, the business included an element Bravo disliked, the politics of competition. “You basically had to sell your soul to the devil,” he said.
In the aftermath of one particular show, he discovered one of his riders distraught over her placement. “She was crying, the stall girl was crying, my wife was crying.”
The show horse rat race was over, then and there. Bravo informed his owners he was done, sold off the horses and considered filing bankruptcy. Reality set in quickly. “I didn’t go the barn the next day. My wife wouldn’t talk to me. I thought ‘what the hell have I done.’ I thought I might be having a nervous breakdown.”
The doubt was short-lived. He quickly acquired a second wind, hooked up a trailer, headed to Canterbury Downs and talked his way into the stable area. “I went from barn to barn, looking for horses that needed to be broken,” he said.
Within days, he had all he could handle at the farm in Cannon Falls, swiftly ran out of room and began searching for more. The hunt led to a man named Dale Schenian, a few years later a Canterbury Park investor and board vice chairman. . “I ended up renting his whole farm,” Bravo said. He began handling Schenian’s broodmare operation. They acquired the stallion Prince Forli.
When Canterbury Downs went dark in 1992, one of Bravo’s owners, Mike Grossman, advised him to become a trainer if he wanted to stay in racing, to make it financially. In the time since he has turned out some outstanding runners, Crocrock, Hold For More, Argenti, Smooth Chiraz, and Hidden Gold among them. He soon bought a horse ranch in Texas and later relocated outside Sulphur, Oklahoma, where he is yet today.
Bravo has been among the top five trainers in Shakopee the last four years, the best of those in 2015 and 2016 when he finished third in the standings. All these years later, he still trains for Schenian and Grossman. Relationships between owners and trainers of such duration are an anomaly in the racing business.
“I consider both of them my closest friends, Bravo said.
“I guess we like each other. How about that,” said Schenian. “He’s a man of integrity, a hard worker and a good person.”
Bravo tries to visit remaining family in Chile every other year. It was nine years after his arrival in River Falls before he returned, to visit his terminally ill father, and he returned four months later for the funeral.
Chile, understandably, has a special place in his heart, for many reasons, one in particular. It is where he and his wife adopted a little girl during a visit in 1992, a year of change, dominated by career and life-altering choices. None of them equaled the one that brought Natalie, now 27, into their lives.
“Best thing we’ve ever done,” he said.
On Saturday Bravo will be inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
by Jim Wells