Horse racing is often associated with glamour, billionaires and fancy hats. Not so in Beirut. Imagine cans of beer, water pipes, and an eagerly betting lower middle class audience of taxi drivers and hairdressers. Beirut’s Hippodrome epitomises both the city’s turbulent history, and its opportunities.
Horse racing in the Middle East is usually associated with the bling of Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse, which opened in 2010. Dubai’s emir Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 69, owns the Godolphin stables, one of the richest and most successful in horseracing history. The Meydan hippodrome features a golf course and five star hotel, and hosts the annual US$10m Dubai World Cup race, a highlight of the season that is broadcast live in the United States.
It’s not exactly the world into which we are venturing when trying to find the gate to the Beirut Hippodrome. The guards there are alert but friendly and, for reasons nobody seems to remember, foreigners and women enter for free. Male Beirutis pay between 5,000 and 15,000 Lebanese liras (three to ten US dollars), depending on the section of the grandstand to which they want access. On this Thursday night, the atmosphere among the hundreds of spectators is lively and focused: the audience takes its races seriously, men of middle age are studying race programs printed on A4 sheets of paper, hoping to pick a winner.
That’s another marked difference to Dubai, where betting at the race course is not possible (though online betting can hardly be avoided, of course). Islam regards betting as a form of gambling, and so it is technically forbidden. In Beirut, with its ethnically and religiously diverse population, betting at one of the many booths beneath the grandstand seems almost a must.
“I bet 200 dollars on Dalida,” says Ahmed. He comes to the races every week and seems to know all the horses and jockeys. “Some of them can be bought for a can of Almaza” (Lebanon’s most popular beer), he jokes. Unfortunately, Dalida doesn’t seem to agree with Ahmed’s intricate knowledge of the races: the horse finishes in second place.
Losing two hundred dollars is quite unfortunate for Ahmad, who works as a company driver. But it doesn’t stop him from betting on the next race, albeit a little more carefully. Together with his friends, one of them a hairdresser, he smokes a sheesha water pipe while seated on a plastic chair. Dubai and Royal Ascot are miles away from this Hippodrome in the Levant.
His friends hail from Dahieh, the Arabic word for ‘suburb’, which has become synonymous with a collection of small neighborhoods and former villages south of Beirut with a mostly Shiite population. A few meters down the stand we meet Michel, a Christian who’s a pensioned school teacher.
In a city with a history of sectarian division, the audience reflects all its ethnic and religious backgrounds. Interesting detail: most of the jockeys riding the horses are from the little known Dom minority, sometimes called “Lebanon’s Roma.” Dom men are often smaller than other Lebanese, and they certainly seem to know how to handle horses.
Despite a substantial presence of armed policemen and soldiers – “in Lebanon you never know when a fight will start,” explains one of them – the atmosphere at the Hippodrome is one of camaraderie and excitement about the races. Whereas modern Beirut is mainly known for its upper class VIP events, the only models here are the horses: gorgeous, elegant Arab pure breds, the only type allowed to race in Beirut. They’re smaller than the Thoroughbred horses that run in Dubai and Europe, but beautiful they are.
“Preserving the Lebanese Arab pure bred is only one way in which the Beirut Hippodrome is playing a vital role in preserving Lebanon’s heritage.” says Joe el Khoury, a medical doctor and activist with the Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage (APLH). El Khoury is also the main author of APLH’s book about the one hundred year history of the Hippodrome, published this year: “L’hippodrome du Parc. Un Siècle dans l’Histoire du Liban” (“The Hippodrome of the Park. A century in Lebanese History”).
Perched between the Mediterranean Sea and the surrounding mountains, Beirut is home to almost half the country’s population an estimated 2 million people and its capacity to grow further is limited. There are very few parks or healthy public spaces left in the city, making the race track an ecological asset as well.
The Hippodrome serves as the city’s green lung. It used to be part of Beirut’s “Horsh el Snoubar,” or pine forest, a lusciously green oasis in a city where every other square metre seems to be supporting a high rise building. “The Hippodrome is technically separated from the Pine Forest by a street, but together they remain one vast green historical space in the middle of Beirut,” El Khoury explains. “No urban development project or war has ever managed to destroy all the ancient trees. But every war and every new development project ate away more of the trees, and the site as a whole keeps being in constant danger.”
The Hippodrome plays a unique social role as well, one of the few places in Beirut where people of all backgrounds and creeds enjoy a great time without the political tensions that foreigners associate with Lebanon and the wider Middle East. A place where all Beirutis can come together, where sectarianism doesn’t play a role.
The Ottoman Hippodrome
The Hippodrome’s 100 year history epitomises the many stages of Lebanon’s complicated history. Its plans were conceived during the First World War by Alfred Sursock (1870 1924), a Greek orthodox businessman from a well known Beirut family. He received the blessing and cooperation of the Ottoman governor of the city, which is all the more remarkable because the governor represented the Ottoman caliphate. Moreover, a new villa that was to be built as part of the Hippodrome complex – known as the “Résidence des Pins” – was meant to become Beirut’s first official casino.
Lebanon went through rough times in the First World War. Although it didn’t suffer much from direct fighting during the Great War, hundreds of thousands of locals disappeared as the battles raged. The impact of a naval blockade by the British and French fleets devastated Beirut, as did the food shortage that resulted from locust swarms destroying crops and the Ottoman army sequestering what was left to feed its soldiers. Additionally, Lebanon’s Ottoman rulers responded to local Arab nationalists clamouring for independence with hangings and repression.
And yet construction of the Hippodrome began, according to some as a grand job creating scheme in harsh times. The Hippodrome witnessed the arrival of French colonial troops after the war and its planned casino in the Résidence des Pins was bought by the French government to house the its governor general, and is at present the residence of the French ambassador to Lebanon. During the next World War, Lebanon declared its independence and the Hippodrome then enjoyed Lebanon’s “Golden Era” of the 1950s and 1960s.
Unfortunately, and like much of the city, it did not escape the tragedies of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 1990). In the first years of the conflict, the Hippodrome temporarily closed before again becoming an antidote to growing sectarianism. From 1977 until 1982 it stayed open and hosted races despite being located at a crossroad dividing three rival armed militias representing three different religious sects (Sunni, Shiite and Maronite Christian). Unofficial truces allowed the races to continue, once again proving how Beirut’s horses can bring the city together.
Disaster then struck in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Suspecting the Hippodrome was being used as a hiding place by Palestinian fighters, the Israeli army shelled the grandstand, the Pine Forest and the nearby stables. Ten of the three hundred horses present were killed. Beirut’s horse owners nevertheless managed to organise a remarkable truce in order to evacuate the remaining horses, with the help of political pressure by Lebanese president Elias Sarkis and American “special envoy” Philip Habib.
After the war ended, a new grandstand was built, albeit a slightly watered down version of Alfred Sursock’s once grand design. But the races go on as before, attracting hundreds of spectators and gamblers every week.
Heritage activists, however, worry that Beirut’s municipality – which still owns the domain – could decide to turn the vast terrain into a major commercial development. “Many new projects have been mentioned, among them ‘Beirut Central Park,’” says author and APLH activist El Khoury. “Most of those projects don’t envision removing the Hippodrome as such, but they do want to change its image. The municipality is sometimes tempted to change its function as a green and public space, to include a golf course or an artificial lake. Everything that defines the charm of the present Hippodrome would go. Some of them want to turn it into a grand VIP club.”
For now, the Hippodrome stands tall as a rare unifier of Lebanon’s population, as new development plans have not yet materialised. Both the middle classes who fill the grandstand and the horse owners – often belonging to Lebanon’s old “aristocratic dynasties” – want to make sure the races go on; while heritage organisations work to ensure that any proposed plans to change things are intensely contested.
And so, in its own unique way, the Beirut Hippodrome and its magnificent Arabian pure bred horses offer a glimpse of hope in a region that is better known for its political and religious struggles.
Indeed, sports have more than once acted as a unifying factor in the region, as is evident by the stardom and pan Arab appeal of Egyptian football player Mohamed Salah. The Hippodrome has however proven itself to be a much better venue for peace and understanding than the football stadiums of Lebanon, where for years football games were played without any supporters in the stands in a bid to avoid scuffles between fans of opposing sides. “Here at the Hippodrome, we just come, sit and smoke; we chat, and study how the horses are doing,” smiles Kareem, a shop assistant. “And in the end, we leave just a little bit poorer than we were before, after having had a good time.”