March 08, 2009

A Day at the Races

Watching the Sunday races

Don’t know what to do next Sunday? Go to the horse races at the Beyrouth Hippodrome. They have races every Sunday, starting at 1 o’clock, and it’s great entertainment. I went with Terror Theo, and another Dutchie, Corinne, fully intending on breaking the house.

While that did not materialize, we did win a whopping 36,000 LBP (well, Theo did, and so he paid for lunch) with Abou El Moulouk, horse # 2, and it was an excellent day on the town.

The track houses some 100 purebred Arabian horses. In the old days owners might have over a 100 horses. These days it is all small time owners. It’s pretty expensive to maintain one, although it seems buying one is not that expensive, You can get a god one for some $700, but you won’t win any races with it.

I did not really know the horse race track for its horse races. I remember the place – like most Beirutis - as being the passage between East and West-Beirut, at times when the Mathaf (museum) crossing was unsafe because of bombing or sniper fire. Which was quite often when I came to town. This was way back in 1990, and I never did see a horse there then. All I ever saw were long lines of people with bags and bags struggling along pathways of loose orange sand through some type of forest. Those sandy roads in summer were almost impossible to navigate with my little motorcycle, and I didn’t like the ‘feel’ of the place.
These horses are on an edge, very nervous. They are not very happy with little kids around that make sudden movements.

Later I visited the place a couple of times when it staged the Beirut Garden Show (how ironic; who has a garden in Beirut nowadays?), and all I remember were dilapidated buildings full of shrapnel holes. You can still see the shrapnel in the door; reminders of a past less peaceful

But Terror Theo insisted this was the place to be on a Sunday afternoon. And right he was. They do not seem to get a whole lot of women there; we were given VIP treatment before we even entered the tracks. We got a tour of the stables; some 100 pure-bred Arabian horses are actually living on the tracks. This one was not racing today
This one was being prepared for today’s race

And when we wanted to enter the grounds, together with all the other people, they told us that ‘no, this entrance really wasn’t very good for us, we had to go where the paying people’ went in. There seems to be a non-paying and paying section. We’d rather have entered the non-paying section, but they didn’t want any of that. But even at the paying section they did not want any money, and eventually we ended up in the VIP lounge, on top of the Hippodrome, together with all the horse owners and big-time betters.
Our winning horse! Abou El Moulouk

Before the race, they walk the horses behind the hippodrome, while the jockeys go on the scales. This is where the people check out the horses, and make their bets. This is where the people view the horses up close and decide on their bets, just before the jockeys mount and go to the track.

Then the jockeys mount the horses and off to the track they go. The actual race doesn’t take much more than a minute, but the whole scene around it is very interesting. I though it was a pretty transparent affair, but one old-timer, an ex-jockey who had been racing himself for some 30 years, and betting since then, said it was all run by ‘mafiosos’ these days. The BBC had a nice article on it. An ex-jockey, and die-hard better, he’s been coming to the track from some 50 years now. He once had a horse shot dead from under him by a soldier with a machine gun. The horse died, he got away with just one bullet hole above the knee.

Most of the jockeys seemed rather deformed. Very short, with odd body ratios. But the smaller they are, the lighter, which greatly improves their chances of winning.
Short little man with odd body ratios
Terror Theo going for a bet.

The current hippodrome dates from 1918, but the first one was built already in 1885 in what is now Bir Hassan, a southern suburb of Beirut. There even seems to have been an old Roman hippodrome, just like the 2,000 year old one in Tyrus, but that one has disappeared. The grounds and all the racing set-ups is the property of the Municipality of Beirut, and is managed by a nonprofit organization SPARCA "Society for the Protection and Improvement of the Arabian Horse in Lebanon ".
And winning

The atmosphere was absolutely great. Betting is big business, and even if you’re not into betting, it is a good place to taste the Beirut of the old days.

It seems that in Beirut October everyone comes together for the Beirut Race Cup 2009. Hats and all. I am planning on being there.
Racing Babes


Anita said...

Nice you have found the joy of the races :-)
Did you never go with me in the days I was a lot at the race track near The Hague? In my memory I must have spend there several days a week for two years.

SlowFuse said...

Found you because of your tree house posting. (a passion of mine).i've long been fascinated by your country, now i'm intrigued by your world.

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