Page last updated at 07:51 GMT, Friday, 14 November 2008

Cleaning up at the Beirut races

Beirut Hippodrome
It's not exactly Ascot but the Beirut Hippodrome is steeped in local history

The BBC's Bob Trevelyan experiences one of the Middle East's few legal betting opportunities during an afternoon at the Beirut races.

A bell rings and, with a crash, the starting gates snap open.

I am in Beirut's Foret des Pins, barely two kilometres from the Islamist Hezbollah movement's heartland, and my money is down on Robin Hood in the opening race.

Racing has been staged on this site since 1918, and it is still one of the few places in the Arab world legally to have a bet.

They might not vote in favour of it, but they are too clever to touch it
General Manager Nabil Nasrallah
The field for this race has been reduced to four. Simple arithmetic suggests I have a 25% chance of landing my bet, but the form guide in my hand is, as yet, undeciphered.

There is a lot of jostling at the first corner and one of the runners is pushed wide. By the back straight they are getting strung out, and by the turn into the home straight there only looks like one winner.

It is Robin Hood, who coasts home well clear of Why Not.

I compare winning betting tickets with Abu Hani, who is in his 70s and a regular racegoer. He shows me how to interpret the racecard, and offers advice on the next race. I take it, and the horse wins.

Working-class affair

While we are shaking hands and celebrating, I ask him if he minds if I take a picture of him. He says outside the racecourse would be fine, but he would rather not be photographed inside.

There are still some sensitivities surrounding gambling in Lebanon, it seems.

The horses here are all Arab bred, rather than the thoroughbreds racing in most other countries. There are about 450 horses in training in Lebanon, which is not much by international standards, but this is the only racecourse.

Many of the horses competing today are dappled greys, but there are also a few chestnuts and darker brown bays. I am examining the runners for the next race, and ask the man beside me for his view.

"This one is half-dead," he says. "And that one is obviously crazy. Number four, Shabab, will win." And it does.

Television screens are showing footage from last night's Beirut Race Cup, one of the big events of the year. The women are wearing elaborate hats and cocktail dresses; the men are in suits. Today is a more working-class affair.

Like most racecourses around the world, Beirut has a grandstand and a members' enclosure. I am in the grandstand, where the racegoers are almost entirely male and over the age of 40.

Beirut Race Cup
The Beirut Race Cup is one of the highlights of the Lebanese season

Frenetic betting

Returning to the parade ring, I am approached by another punter, who warns me about using my phone.

Kamel says that mobiles are strictly forbidden inside the racecourse to prevent race-fixing. I ask him how he is getting on and he breaks into a smile and says he is not winning today but that there are enough better days to keep him coming back.

After one popular result, some young men tear off their shirts and run around swinging them around their heads
"I love coming. It is an oasis here," he says.

Placing a bet is an immense crush though, with people climbing over each other to push their money through the window to the teller.

There are no independent bookmakers, just a state-run pooled betting system, similar to the Tote in Britain and Ireland, or the PMU in France.

As the afternoon wears on, the betting seems to get more frenetic. After one popular result, some young men tear off their shirts and run around the betting hall swinging them around their heads.

Joseph, 65, tells me he has been coming to the races in Beirut since the 1960s. He was working as a waiter and got to know some of the jockeys who used his hotel's sauna to keep their weight down.

He got a few tips, started winning and began to take a closer interest.

When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, racing continued although the course was close to some of the fiercest fighting and just beside the Green Line separating the Christian east of Beirut from the mainly Muslim west.

Important industry

The racecourse general manager, Nabil Nasrallah, says it was one of the few places where people from both sides could mix freely during the war, without problems.

Beirut Hippodrome
A day at the races is a reflection of deep-seated Lebanese culture
In 1982 though, the racecourse was hit by rockets during the Israeli siege of west Beirut. The old grandstand was destroyed, and it was decided it was too dangerous for racing to continue.

The horses were mostly moved out of Beirut, but there were few proper stud facilities and many died before they could be bred from.

Some racehorses were imported later from Iraq and Egypt, but local horses with proven Arab breeding were favoured.

Joseph recalls one notorious case when a successful Iraqi horse was thrown out because of doubts about the purity of its bloodline.

Says Mr Nasrallah: "It is an industry that has a lot of history here, but there is not enough money coming in now.

"The big owners, with more than 100 horses, do not exist any more. It is very expensive so we rely on small owners."

Joseph tells me there were regularly 20 runners in each race in the 1960s. Now it is more usual for there to be six or seven.

I ask Mr Nasrallah if the Lebanese racing - and, by extension, gambling - industry has faced opposition from Hezbollah or other conservative Muslim organisations, but he tells me no senior figure has ever said they want to shut it down.

"They might not vote in favour of it, but they are too clever to touch it," he says. "We are working very freely."

Part of the reason is that many of those employed in racing, from the stable lads up, come from poorer, conservative areas.

Minority pursuits

There is also a wider issue.

Form sheet in Arabic
Our reporter was a bit baffled by the tip sheet at first, but he still cleaned up
It is one of the more surprising aspects of Lebanon that so many secular, liberal people are seemingly relaxed about an Islamist movement becoming so powerful.

Some say Hezbollah, as Shia Muslims, are used to being a minority historically and are consequently tolerant of the activities of other minorities. Others believe that Lebanese cultural life is so firmly entrenched that Hezbollah would not be able to upset it, and probably would not dare try because of the ructions it would cause.

There are also those who suggest an economic motivation, saying that Hezbollah is too smart to risk the damage to business and tourism if Lebanon were to become a more Islamic state.

And then there are sceptics - those who believe that Hezbollah is concealing its real intentions as it accrues more power, and that Lebanon is sleepwalking into changes of huge consequence.

The answer to that question lies some years in the future. For the moment, there is just time for another bet and I force a handful of grubby notes through the betting window, backing Mirsad at about 12-to-one.

He wins, giving me a 100% record. Extraordinary, but it was just that kind of day.

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