A Sunday at the Tracks

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NOW Extra
A Sunday at the tracks
Horse Racing at Beirut’s Hippodrome provides authentic thrills
Spencer Dylan Burke, Special to NOW Lebanon , July 3, 2009

In a city bereft of public parks and mature trees, and thronged by new construction wiping away the uncanny urban vacancy of the war, it comes as a surprise to drive up Avenue Omar Beyhum and see a long wall partitioning the bustle of the city from an expanse of verdant tree tops within. Over the concrete block walls spill branches laden heavy with orange and purple flowers. On the other side is the Hippodrome, where every Sunday Beirutis gather to wager and watch.

Horse racing has been popular in the Levant since at least the days of the Romans. Indeed, a short drive south to Tyre brings you to the sight of the largest surviving Roman hippodrome in the world, once capable of seating 20,000 spectators.

Beirut’s Hippodrome, though not as colossal, carries on the same tradition. The stadium first opened in 1885, but was moved to Mathaf in 1918 from its original location in Beir Hassan. The racetrack is set on the southern edge of the city, book-ended by the National Museum and the French Embassy. Adjacent to the south is the city’s largest expanse of parkland: the 300,000 square meters of pine forest in Horsh Beirut.

The Hippodrome is in itself, however, a respite from the city. The atmosphere changes instantly upon entering the gate from the busy multi-laned expressway outside. Walking down the tree-lined dirt path to the track, the sound of traffic disappears and the smell of manure and earth replaces that of exhaust.

The Hippodrome du Parc de Beyrouth, as it is known officially, is administered by SPARCA – the Society for the Protection and Improvement of the Arabian Horse in Lebanon – but owned by the city’s municipal authorities. There has been talk of the municipality revoking SPARCA’s grant – discussed here by NOW Lebanon in 2007 – and turning the space into a public park.

This would be a shame. The Hippodrome provides a rare glimpse into the days of old Beirut, and offers the outsider a revealing look at the culture of urban Arab masculinity. The Hippodrome was, supposedly, the place to be for Beirut’s elite during the French Mandate, and up through the beginning of the war. Now the Beirut Hippodrome is one of the few sites in the Middle East where one can bet legally on horse racing.

The place seems to be the exclusive preserve of middle aged and older local men. I was the only foreigner in sight, and in 20 minutes of looking, I spotted only a single woman. Small clusters of men sit on plastic chairs, gathered around tables or on the concrete steps of the grandstands, chain-smoking cigarettes or taking slow drags from narghiles, confabbing exuberantly among themselves under the thatched awning. Given their gesticulations and bearing, it wouldn’t surprise me if every one were a taxi driver.

When the horn announces that a race is about to begin, everyone ambles down and packs along the rail overlooking the track. The energy of the crowd builds palpably, and as the jockeys push the horses around the course into the second lap, an electricity fills the air. The men lean far over the railing, shouting wildly at the horses, to each other and to themselves, just shouting. The spirit of the experience seems to beg any kind of outpouring of noise and emotion. I suppose it’s better to vent one’s aggression here than behind the wheel.

As soon as the first horse hurtles past the finish line, the clamor dissipates, and in an instant, everyone scatters: the winners to claim their takings and the losers back to nursing their pipes.

I went to the Hippodrome intending to try my hand at betting on the races, but abandoned the notion at first glance. As a non-Arabic speaker, the whole process was abstruse, and obviously not designed for the use by an outsider. Still, the mere thrill of being a spectator, of the sleek and muscled Arabian horses – described on the SPARCA website as “masterpiece[s] of Mother Nature” – and of the other spectators, is reason enough to recommend a visit to anyone.

Races are held every Sunday, starting at 12:30 p.m. (in July and August, 1:30 p.m.). According to the Hippodrome’s official website, 700 horses are attached to the track and train there every morning from dawn until 8:30 a.m. For the rest of the day, the premises are open to the public.