Tue, Dec 07, 2010 - Page 18 News List

FEATURE: Horse racing unites in Baghdad

AP, BAGHDAD

The anti-gambling measures were part of a wider campaign by the dictator to curb Iraq’s secular lifestyle and Western attitudes, including the free flow of alcohol.

As a result, Iraq’s horse population plummeted from about 200,000 in the 1980s to around 2,000 just before the US-led invasion in 2003, al-Nujaifi said, adding that the Iraqi Arabian Horse Organization’s stud book listed only 200 horses late in 2002, a sharp drop from the more than 1,000 it had just a few years earlier.

“Most of the horses were killed, starved, stolen or were smuggled and sold abroad,” he said.

Things only got worse after the US invasion, said Mohammed Naji, the deputy president of Baghdad’s Equestrian Club.

“The invasion destroyed all the club’s facilities and after the occupation the looting added more destruction,” Naji said, noting that the surviving horses were left hungry and wandering the countryside.

The club members invested about US$500,000 to rebuild the track in western Baghdad and -racing restarted in 2004, just when a bitter sectarian war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite populations also was brewing.

Many breeders fled the violence and kidnappings that targeted the country’s middle class. Some breeders have since returned, and many see a brighter future for racing with horses being imported from Turkey and Iran.

“It’s still more of a hobby than it is a job,” said Bafer al-Daoud, a horse owner with four stables in Baghdad. “Although the prices of horses are getting higher, we still have a lot to do to rehabilitate the industry.”

The track needs a stadium and infrastructure, including paved roads and a new sewage system, Naji said. Security, however, does not seem to be a concern for the race fans even though the site is in the former heartland of the Sunni insurgency.

Naji said he was hoping the government would notice the problems and contribute to restoring part of Iraq’s national heritage, but as in many other sports, race fans have been disappointed by the government’s lack of interest.

They may, however, be getting a new booster. Mohammed al-Nujaifi’s brother Osama has just been elected as parliament speaker and some racing fans are hoping that he might help renew interest in their sport.

But for the crowd gathered on a recent Tuesday, even the meager track was a welcome respite from the challenges of living in Iraq.

“No politics and no Shiites or Sunnis are allowed,” said Mustak Reyan, an unemployed worker and track regular. “Here we only have eyes for horses.”

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