Chicken joy

The patriarch of one of Manila‘s most prominent families tells Teodoro Montelibano about the noble qualities of the rooster. From BusinessWorld Magazine.

Jorge Leon "Nene" Araneta is in buoyant spirits as we dine at the Oasis, the unique open-air garden restaurant floating above the streets of Cubao, in Quezon City. It is right smack in the center of Gateway Mall, the stunning Php2.5-billion-peso modern multi-storey commercial dining and entertainment complex built by Araneta's family and currently the centerpiece of the sprawling commercial retail and entertainment complex built by Araneta's late father, Jose Amado Araneta in Cubao.

Nene Araneta is tall and lean, his fine patrician features and sanguine demeanor making him look less than his 70 years. His are the same looks that won for him the heart of the former Stella Marquez, once adjudged one of the world's most beautiful. Araneta now serves as chairman and CEO of the Araneta Group of Companies, is in the business of, among various other activities, realizing his father's vision of transforming the 35-hectare, family-owned Cubao property into an ideal new city and major lifestyle center.

At the center of these developments will be the famous Araneta Coliseum, otherwise known as the Big Dome, built by Araneta's father in the late 1950s and opened in March 1960. Here was held the memorable bout between Filipino pugilist Gabriel "Flash" Elorde and American Harold Gomes, and where Muhammad Ali retained his world heavyweight title after defeating arch-rival Joe Frazier during the "Thrilla in Manila" fight in October 1975.

It goes without saying that Araneta can indulge in almost anything he could possibly want. He was once offered ownership of one of the oldest, finest Bordeaux premier grand crus in the world – Chateau Margaux – with a magnificent chateau to boot. It is, however, in the breeding of game fowls that he finds his passion. He is famous the world over for the annual World Slasher Cup, attracting kindred spirits and high-rollers here and abroad for the international eight-cock derby every May.

He had long been keen on game fowl breeding and cockfighting. His father owned a cockpit in Jaro, lloilo City, which was turned over to him after Don Amado's close friend, Basilio Lopez, suffered a heart attack during a derby. Lopez's rooster was pitted against that of his bitter rival, Carlos Montilla, whose entry was way ahead in the joust. Suddenly, Lopez's rooster got its bearings, fought back, and won the bout.

"It was a very close decision and as soon as Lopez's rooster was pronounced the victor, I rushed over to congratulate him," related Araneta. "He was seated in the front row and had stood up in victory. Then he turned ashen. And slumped down right in front of me! Well, at least he died happy, but my father never entered that cockpit again. He turned it over to me." Araneta was only 15 at the time.

Someone told me you said cock-fighting-in the country is more popular than the Roman Catholic Church?

There is no barangay (community) in the entire country na walang sabong (with no cockfight). But what I did say was that there are more cockpits than churches here. And that's saying a lot, right?

Is there a particular breed that you look for?

In my case, I breed what I think is the best, (which is) the roundhead hatch cross. Fighting cocks date back centuries in Asia, spreading across to India, the Middle East, Europe, and then the United States. The Greeks used to have a cockfight before going to battle. And the generals would tell their soldiers, "If you can fight like these cocks, tomorrow, we're going to win!"

How many do you have now?

I have 300 here in Cubao, 400 in my farm in Tanauan (Batangas), and another 400 in Lipa (Batangas). From the US; they cost about US$350.

Do you give them names?

I used to, but I've given up giving them names because there's too many of them. My all-time favorite is 69. That was his number.

Why was he your favorite?

Because he was, in my opinion, the perfect rooster. He won five times in the grand derby without getting scratched. He had a perfect (fighting) style. He fought like Muhammad Ali. Anybody can box, but not all boxers are like Ali. Brainy. Not (like a brawler) like Tyson.

Do you bet in the derbies?

I'm not really high-stakes, (although) I really go for the pot, which can be rather substantial. At one time, there were 130 entries (in the World Slasher Cup), so you multiply that by US$1,000 and you have a pot which is something like Php6.5 million.

What is the difference between a sportsman and a gambler?

A sportsman is one who breeds, who trains, whose interest is not so much in the betting but in the result of his efforts to produce a super athlete. A winning cock is a super athlete. A gambler, mean-while, is someone who just likes to bet.

How do you take care of your game fowls?

Just like you take care of Manny Pacquiao. You develop their skills, endurance, and you give them the right diet. Their living quarters should be as close as possible to wild, to nature. And just like Pacquiao, during the last two days before a fight, they should be made to feel relaxed.

Is it true that fighting cocks, once in the arena, will fight to the death?

Absolutely. The most noble animal in the world is the fighting cock. They are the bravest. They are gladiators. They will fight to the death. No other animal, not even a human being, will fight to the death.

Is it true that you had a champion fighting cock you loved so much that when he died you built him a mausoleum?

No, not true. When they die, I just bury them on the ground. But you know, they fight for you, they die for you. You have to treat them with respect.