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Enjoying a flutter on the horses in the Iraqi capital

Horse racing in Baghdad
The US-led invasion interrupted racing in Baghdad for only three months

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

The crowd in the stands rose to their feet shouting and gesticulating in tense excitement as the horses rounded the final bend and thundered down the home straight to the finishing-post in a cloud of dust.

A mundane enough sight in many places, for sure - but not perhaps what you would expect to find in war-stricken Baghdad.

Since 1920, when the British founded the Baghdad Equestrian Club, horseracing has been a regular feature of life in the Iraqi capital.

Twice a week, on Saturdays and Tuesdays, patient punters queue at checkpoints on the approach road to the dusty racecourse on the western outskirts of the city.

Arguing over coffee

They have been doing this throughout the turbulent times that followed the US-led invasion in 2003, which disrupted racing just for a brief three-month period at the beginning.

"It was very difficult," recalls Dr Muhammad Mahmoud Najem, the club's chief vet and registrar of the Iraqi Arabian Horse Organisation. He has worked at the racecourse for the past 30 years.

"American troops were here, with their tanks parked on the racetrack. After that, there were difficult times. Many horses were killed or died. Many owners left Iraq, jockeys went to neighbouring countries. But then things gradually began returning to normal."

The horse owners had to club together and put up funds for the facilities to be rehabilitated.

We leave our differences at the gate. There are no Sunnis or Shias here. Just people who love horses
Racecourse regular

Even now, the stands and public areas are shabby, grubby and run-down. The grandstand, started by a French company in Saddam Hussein's day, remains unfinished.

But that does not deter the hundreds who flock here twice a week to study form, argue over a coffee or a hubble-bubble, join the clamouring crush to place last-minute bets with the touts, and then cheer their chosen mount on as it careers past the stands.

"There's no other place like this in Baghdad where you can go and have a good time," said one regular.

"It's not the money that brings us here, it's seeing the horses. It's like a fraternity. We leave our differences at the gate. There are no Sunnis or Shias here. Just people who love horses."

Some of the punters brandish thick wads of $100 bills. A lot of money changes hands here.

Crowd at the Baghdad races
Mixed crowds hope to see the glory days of Baghdad racing return

"Three-quarters of the people here are unemployed," said one regular. "Some of them go robbing and looting to get money to come and gamble here.

"It wasn't like this in Saddam's time, when the law was strong. Nowadays if they catch someone stealing, they just say: 'That's all right' and let him go, because all the leaders are thieves."

The racecourse is in an area which was until recently a hotbed of militant Sunni insurgency, making it all the more remarkable that it managed to keep going through all the troubles.

Dedication

There are usually six races each meet day, with purse money varying according to the category of the horses.

"The betting money all goes to the owners and for the employees' salaries, there's no profit at all," says Dr Mahmoud, the senior vet. "Believe me, the horse owners are losing money."

"We hope some companies will invest in racing so we can complete the infrastructure and the stands, and support the horses properly, so we can come up to international level," said another course vet and racing fanatic, Jamal Rashid.

"There's a big shortage of medicines and vaccines for the horses. We have big health problems. Nobody bothers with it, they're busy looking after cattle and sheep and other commercial operations."

It's a far cry from the glory days which in its early decades made the Baghdad club the most glamorous and prestigious racing venue in the Middle East.

Now, it has been eclipsed by Dubai and other regional centres.

But given the dedication that has kept the racecourse going through thick and thin, it's an odds-on bet that it will still be around for a very long time to come.



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