Updated: Apr 15, 2020
There’s a big Repsol garage near La Capitana, Marta’s mother’s farm. RESTAURANTE blinks over the motorway in the early morning light. We’re meeting her mother there because my car will never make it up the drive. There’s a line of patas, pig legs, hanging behind the counter. Instead of ketchup, there are squeezy bottles of freshly whizzed tomato on the plastic tables. A dozen men in tweed flat-caps rumble gruffly. A dozen more shout and laugh. The coffee’s excellent.
This is the first time I’ve met Aurora Algarra. She’s tall and slim, wearing big sunglasses, cargo trousers and a red checked shirt. I meet Coba too – a dog named after La Cobatilla, her husband’s bull farm. Aurora’s brother is a bullfighter, her father bred bulls at La Capitana, and now she’s running the farm.
“What do you mean you’ve never seen a bullfight!” she cries.
Today’s a kind of taster, for me and for the animals. It’s not a real corrida de toros. It’s a tentadero. They’ll test the style, movement, and character of young cows. Aurora needs to decide which females to keep for breeding, and which to send to the abattoir.
Davíd and El Portugués were busy in the stables when we arrived. Here, the stalls don’t have doors. The horses are all tied up in a line, their strong bottoms facing outwards. They're separated by whitewashed walls just low enough so the they can see their neighbours. There’s a little field outside. Marta sticks her hand over the fence, and a giant nose approaches.
“This is Capitan.”
Capitan used to be chestnut, but the white strip down his nose has grown over the years, and now his whole face is flecked with grey. There’s a little chunk missing from his left ear. He’s not unusually tall, but he’s as wide as any horse I’ve ever seen, plus half again. He’s also enormously fluffy. There are a couple of spots on his flanks where the fur won’t grow anymore. War wounds.
“Es un percheron (shire horse),” Marta says, “That's the breed the picadors ride.”
We put his headcollar on and take him back to the stables. Capitan will be in the bullring today.
El Portugués gets him ready, and Marta and I head back to the house. A group of French people have just arrived to see the farm. They’re all listening to a Venezuelan guy in a pink shirt, a flashy belt, and tight jeans. Sevastian’s the torero. While he changes into his proper gear, we combine a tour of the farm with feeding of the cattle. Why waste petrol? Marta rides in the tractor, up front, leaving me and the interpreter to do the entertaining. There’s a sweet girl of about five called Violette. She’s not remotely afraid of the bulls. Marta doesn’t look scared either. She’s standing in the field, resting one foot as she smokes a cigarette. The farmhand trails an open sack of grain along the wide feeders.
The tractor pulls up to the house behind Santi’s car. He’s got the boot open, and is putting a hollow metal leg over his jeans. Armour. He’s today’s picador - the armoured horseman. In a real corrida, it’s Santi’s job to weaken the bull and prepare it for the toreros, who fight on foot. Today he’ll be riding Capitan. The wide, red-and-white bullring is directly in front of the house. You can see down into it from the terrace. The near side is dug into the hill, while the outer wall leads into the holding pens, and ultimately out into the fields. Santi beckons me into the arena. To get into it on foot, you’ve got to go through a thin opening in the tall outer wall, then slide past one of the brick barriers, before you’re out on the open sand. Capitan’s already there, wearing a floor-length padded skirt.
“This is Muñeco (Doll),” says Santi.
“I thought his name was Capitan?”
“No, Muñeco, because he looks like a teddy bear.”
Santi puts a blindfold over the horse’s big eyes, and hops onboard, swinging his armoured right leg over the saddle with ease. He picks up a long wooden lance and starts mock-fighting with the air. Captain Teddy Bear is meek and obliging. His ears swivel around as he tries to figure out where the bull is. On the other side of the ring, Sevastian’s dancing in the dust, swinging his pink capote as he twirls.
Aurora leans on the edge of the arena, notebook in hand, and calls to El Portugués to let in the first cow. Two of Aurora’s daughters, her sister, and her niece are watching too. The cow canters in. She’s flighty and panicked. She turns circles and zig-zags without taking particular aim at anything. Aurora purses her lips and writes something down. Santi shouts to grab the cow’s attention, and she runs for him. She starts butting against the horse as hard as she can, but - at half his weight - she's got no chance of making him move an inch. Santi jabs his lance into her shoulder.
In strides Sevastian. He lowers his chin and raises his breast, puts his right hand on his hip and flutters his capote with his left. The cow whips around and goes for it. He swivels on his left heel, sweeping the capote backwards and leading the cow with him as he turns. The wind picks up his capote. The cow aims for his exposed body instead. She pushes him backwards with her strong head. Santi and Captain Teddy Bear canter over, trying to push her away, but they don’t make it in time. Sevastian’s already spun around between her horns, turned and run away from her. A guy in jeans waves another capote from behind a barrier. The cow gets distracted and makes for him instead.
All the while, the women whisper their commentary between themselves.
“She charges with her head too high.”
“Look, look how wide her circles are.”
Aurora reserved judgement and reminded everyone that it’s about how a cow finishes, not how she starts.
“It’s time to torear her.”
An eighteen-year-old called Primi steps out with a different cape. This one’s red, and much smaller. In real corrida, they use the pink capote to suss out the bull’s character. The red muleta comes out when it’s time to dominate the bull. Today wasn’t about killing the cows – they both left the arena alive and very much kicking – so I’m not sure what the difference was with the muleta. All I know is that Primi was holding a small sword in his left hand, flush with the cape. Primi seems more conscious of his posture than Sevastian. His chest is higher, his legs straighter, and his brow more deeply furrowed. It’s hard to tell whether this is a sign of strong talent or inexperience. The cow’s calmer now, only focusing on the red cape in her path as she slowly gallops around him, to the left and to the right.
Aurora’s made up her mind. This cow’s out of luck. She’ll be slaughtered elsewhere and sold for meat.
The second, and final cow is let in. It was obvious that this cow had some talent even before the women started to rumble “Bien”. She was brave but steady, often standing still and looking her opponent in the eye while they waved their capes at her. She bowed her head low when she did charge, and her charge was strong and slow. It was the same routine again, with the picador, the torero and Primi – the apprentice – taking turns to test her out. With this cow they could really dance. By the end, Primi was the favourite. He glowed with pride, wiping his bloody hand on his jeans so he could accept the spectators's handshakes.
“This cow's good,” said Aurora, “but she’s not good enough. I just didn’t feel ‘wow’, you know? I’ve got hundreds of cows. I can only afford to keep the best.”
Aurora didn’t just mean she couldn’t afford to feed them. Bull-breeders become trusted brands. It’s important to develop the best bloodline you can.
“One bad bull and you can go from being on top of the world, to being la altura de un zapato, the height of a shoe.”
She closed her notebook and set off towards the spectators. Marta and I went to go and spray the cows’ wounds. They were herded into the same long metal chute that we used for the injections, then released amongst the cork trees. Santi gave me a lift home. He grinned.
“Just wait till you see the real thing.”
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