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Sport of Kings Slowly Returns to Baghdad - 2003-07-09


It’s been called the sport of kings. Since the British brought the sport to Iraq in the 1920s, horse racing has been a popular pastime in the country. During the war, the Baghdad Equestrian Club was looted of all its equipment. Recently it was reopened with a little help from the U.S. Army.

“When we came there was no one here except the people from the administration that wanted to get the horse races back racing again and so what we did exchange for us to stay in this building," said Army Lieutenant Pempin. "During the races we kind of didn’t provide security, but since people see the American Army as such a threat, they no longer chose to come over here and steal items out of these buildings, which in turn allowed people to start racing again.”

Raising the money to get the races started again wasn’t easy. The club’s bank accounts are frozen, as is the entire Iraqi banking system. So, the club’s board members like Mohamed Al Ani had to use cash out of their own pockets.

“Now after three days of racing we are more optimistic because some money has started coming in. We are taking this money to pay the obligations we have for the reconstruction,” he said.

It might seem odd that betting would be permitted in a predominately Muslim country. Ali Masraf, who has worked with the club for 30 years, says Iraqis like to make a good bet.

“Even in Iran, which is an Islamic government, they have racing. And in Saudi Arabia they have horse racing, but some have no betting," he said. "I think in Saudi Arabia they don’t have betting. In Iraq, we don’t have Islamic government.”

Under the stands there was a lot of so called “side action” or unsanctioned betting going on. This game is called Lego.

There has always been a deep-rooted passion for horses in the Arab world. And Iraq is no exception. Horse ownership in Iraq is a hobby of the wealthy. The family of a college student named Omar, studying software engineering, has been racing horses here for generations. His father is a current board member of the club.

“He has won four times. And his age is four years. And he is good horse,” Omar said of a horse he owns.

The competition can get fierce. Omar told me that a man killed his grandfather after his horse won a big derby. The assailant was the owner of the horse that came in second. Saddam ordered the Equestrian Club closed twice, once in the seventies and once in the nineties.

“I think last time Saddam decided to close horse racing and he built a mosque in the place of the race track," said Mr. Masraf. "But that affects a lot the assets of the country, I mean the horses. Because the horse owners are no longer interested in breeding and keeping the horses because they cost them a lot of money.”

In this race, Omar’s horse comes in seventh. “Not good, not good,” he said.

But others have better luck. “How can I kiss you? You are my angel,” said one man, who bet on a winner.

There are plans for a new clubhouse. And when the electricity becomes more reliable, there is talk of night racing under the lights. Life in Baghdad is becoming more routine. And horse racing is once again a part of it.