Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Saturday, 13 August 2011 11:27 UK

Sudan horse race aims to heal a nation's dented ego

Horse racing at the Sudanese Derby

By James Copnall
BBC News, Khartoum

This year's fiercely contested Sudan derby was not just a horse race, it was a moment to lift the nation's spirits after the secession of oil-rich South Sudan.

How do you overcome a dictator? I certainly had not expected that question at the Sudanese derby, or the Derby Sudani as it is known in Arabic.

Certainly most of the Sudanese opposition, and the rebels who have just won independence for South Sudan, call President Omar al-Bashir a dictator, and sometimes worse.

Others agree - the International Criminal Court wants to try him for genocide allegedly committed in Darfur.

We have a big problem in Sudan - we're not as loyal as other people
Ahmed Omar Abdelati, Sudanese derby organiser

But such views would probably not gain much purchase among the moneyed families who took their places in the main stand at the Khartoum racecourse, under a canopy of black, white, red and green Sudanese flags.

A dictator got an impassioned round of applause at this year's derby, or rather, the horse called Diktator did.

President Bashir's own horse, Ababil, apparently named after a fighter plane, was listed as a contender in the shiny programme, but did not run in the end.

Racing pride

Diktator was clearly one of the favourites.

Like most of Sudan's prize horses, he comes from Darfur, in the west, where horsemanship is anything but a dying art.

A jockey and his horse at the Sudanese Derby
Passion and fierce competition surround Sudanese horse racing

Horses are kept in the courtyards of houses, and in some parts of society a man is not considered a man unless he owns at least one.

Some racehorses from Darfur can fetch as much as 30,000 Sudanese pounds (£7,000, $11,000). Other less favoured nags walk the 800 miles (1,300km) from Darfur to Khartoum, accompanying herds of cattle.

But what makes Diktator unique is that he has only one eye. This, and a string of wins in earlier races, made him a popular choice to win the derby.

Officially, nobody was betting though. Gambling at the races used to be big business, particularly under the late President Jaafar Nimeiri, a keen race-goer, in the 1970s.

Even before that, distinguished visitors including Queen Elizabeth II were taken to the races as a matter of course. There is no record of whether the Queen had a flutter.

In any case, in 1983 President Nimeiri introduced Sharia or Islamic law, and gambling was outlawed. But if you know the right people, I was told, you can still put some money on the horse of your choice.

"It all happens under the table," one owner told me, "and the stake can be up to 260 Sudanese pounds ($100).

"But if someone wants to bet against one of my horses, I will put down whatever amount he wants."

'Dented ego'

In theory, the crowd was here just for the sport. This year, in particular, that came accompanied by a healthy dose of nationalism.

Mahmoud Abdelaziz performs at Sudanese Derby in Khartoum
Singer Mahmoud Abdelaziz kept race-goers entertained

A small Sudan flag was draped over each seat, and a larger one was placed on the back of a horse, which was paraded in front of the grandstand.

A famous singer, Mahmoud Abdelaziz, entertained the crowd between races.

The dignitaries in the VIP enclosure walked down to dance with him in the Sudanese style, clicking the fingers of their right hands in the air, with their upper bodies swaying only slightly.

The speaker system crackled out praise for the nation. This public patriotism was not entirely spontaneous.

Only weeks ago, South Sudan declared its independence, following a referendum in which 99% of the southerners who voted chose separation.

One of the derby day's early races hammered that humbling point home to the spectators. The rallying cry of the north had been "Wahda", which means unity.

Find out more

But the horse optimistically named Wahda failed as miserably as the unity campaign before the referendum, trailing in last in its race.

The South's secession has deprived Sudan of 75% of the oil its economy depends on, so there will be tough times ahead.

The impact has been psychological too. Like a husband whose wife has filed for divorce and won it, the Sudanese here have a dented ego.

Ahmed Omar Abdelati was the man who organised the celebrations at the racetrack.

"We have a big problem in Sudan - we're not as loyal as other people," he said.

"We don't know how to express our feelings.

"Even when a man gets married, he never says anything nice to his wife.

"And because of the separation, the people are down, and we need to know it's not the end of the world."

Finally, Diktator and his competitors were ready for the derby.

Some of the horses had their hair braided into little plaits. Others flexed their haunches under the fierce sun, as they walked round the parade ground.

The race itself was a hotly contested and passionate business. The announcer struggled to identify the contenders as they rounded the far bend, not helped by the dust they kicked up.

The roar of the crowd grew as the jockeys, most of them from Darfur and some of them getting on in years, pushed their rides into the final straight. At stake was glory, pride, and a new car.

Diktator came second.

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