Beirut’s horse-racing track keeps going against the odds

Sitting on 20 hectares of prime real estate in the capital, the venue is struggling

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The breath steams out of Ya Gharami’s nostrils in the early-morning cold at Beirut’s racecourse, the horse shifting on his hooves as his groom, Maher, brushes his chestnut coat.

A thin and wiry man with tattooed forearms showing beneath the sleeves of his hooded jacket, he then expertly braids the 3-year-old’s tail into a short knot before slipping on a bridle and leading Ya Gharami to the training yard next to the track.

Maher stops under a tree in the centre of the yard and lights a cigarette, taking drags with one hand and holding the horse’s reins with the other as they wait. Rainwater fills indentations in the sand left by thousands of hooves. The densely packed tower blocks of Beirut rise above the boundary wall on the opposite side of the track, while above the expansive, green hippodrome, grey-blue clouds scud over the city.

Ya Gharami’s jockey, Adnan Al Assaad, arrives and takes him for a gallop around the narrow training track surrounding the circuit. The horse’s trainer watches from a modest shelter to the side and checks the time. Ya Gharami is looking good for the race in a few days' time.

Horse racing was first licensed in Beirut in 1880, when the city was part of the Ottoman empire. The track has existed in its current location in the south of the city since 1915, when the Ottoman mayor awarded a franchise to the aristocrat Alfred Sursock to create a racetrack and casino in the city’s pine forests.

While the casino building became the seat of the French mandate, the racetrack with its elegant colonnaded grandstand became a hub for wealthy Beirutis, who would bet on purebred Arabian stallions owned by the city’s elite.

“This is the grandstand as it was, painted by a friend of mine,” says Nabil Nasrallah, the racetrack’s director general, gesturing to a watercolour painting showing horses galloping past the stand. “It’s a souvenir of what the hippodrome was.”

He gestures to a photograph showing the rubble left behind after an Israeli tank destroyed the stand during the invasion of 1982.

Mr Nasrallah, now 78, has worked at the racetrack since 1971 and has seen its highs and lows. He recalls how the track came to be seen as neutral ground and a place of coexistence during Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990, given its position right on the Green Line separating rival groups in the east and west. At a race in 1977, “we had more than 15,000 people here,” he says. “They just wanted to meet their neighbours or their friends from other parts of Beirut.”

A watercolour picture owned by the hippodrome's director general, Nabil Nasrallah, depicting the original grandstand, built in 1915.

In another frame, on the peeling walls of the track’s boardroom, Mr Nasrallah shows a draft of his plans for complex, with an upgraded grandstand and the creation of public parks and new enclosures for riding schools.

“I don’t think I will see it,” he says, with a chuckle.

On Sunday, race day, the sun shines through the windows of the concrete stands thrown up in the 1990s.

The racecourse is situated on 20 hectares of land owned by the municipality, while the races and associated betting are run by Sparca, a non-profit organisation. Mr Nasrallah says the municipality deems such activities “incompatible with its public mission”.

Jockeys compete during a horse race at Beirut Hippodrome, Lebanon, in 1992. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Races are held about three Sundays in a month, depending on the availability of horses, and attract crowds of one to two thousand, he says. Revenue from the track goes towards its upkeep.

But the course’s survival is under threat from Lebanon’s economic collapse, which has made it much more costly to keep horses and put on races. Mr Nasrallah is desperate to keep it going, fearing the municipality will otherwise sell the valuable land to property developers, and the city will lose a priceless piece of heritage and green space.

“The threat is very real,” he says. “I tell you the truth, if we go, the whole area will fall apart.”

Although he wants to retire, keeping the track open feels like a personal battle that only he has the expertise, and the determination, to pull off.

“I would retire tomorrow if someone can work without pay, without a salary,” he says. “I’m getting $200 or $300 a month. It was $10,000 in the past.”

Not everyone at the track is burdened by such concerns. All morning, punters stream in through the gates, drifting to the paddock to inspect the horses and then to the grandstand to watch the races. The course does not have the strict dress code of some internationally renowned venues, and attire varies from suits to tracksuits, although the spectators are almost exclusively men.

In the weighing area, Al Assaad hops from one foot to the other, swinging his arms as he prepares for what he hopes will be only the second win of Ya Gharami’s young career.

“For sure, I’m excited,” he says. “Nervous, but excited.”

As Beirut’s top jockey, Al Assaad could follow many other Lebanese and seek better pay for his talents abroad. But he has no intention of leaving.

“I’m really happy here in Lebanon,” he says. “I’m the number one jockey here. Maybe abroad, they’ll be better than me.”

When racetime comes, Maher leads Ya Gharami on to the track and towards the starting gates on the other side of the course. Some residents in the building next to the track come out on to their balconies to watch. Al Assaad talks to Ya Gharami as he trots him back and forth to keep the animal’s nerves in check while handlers in high-vis jackets manoeuvre three rivals into the starting gate.

Adnan eventually coaxes Ya Gharami into the gate on the inside position. The horses buck their heads. One jockey adjusts his goggles.

The gates spring open and Ya Gharami leaps forward, Adnan spurring him on. Horses and riders jostle for position along the opening straight, the snow-covered mountain peaks looming in the distance. As they come around the corner and towards the finishing straight, the roar from the crowd swells. Punters yell the name of the horses and their jockeys, urging them on.

But Ya Gharami is tiring. Despite his strong start, he does not have the stamina. As he crosses the line, the jockey riding horse number 1 yells in delight as the animal, Troy, picks up a first win. This is not Ya Gharami’s day.

Adnan dismounts, letting the handlers take Ya Gharami back to the stable.

In a few days they will be training again: up at dawn, around the old racetrack. Just like generations of horses and riders before them.

Updated: February 07, 2022, 2:03 PM
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