At 100, Beirut’s Hippodrome faces uncertain future

Friday 08/04/2016
A horse handler kisses an Arabian horse at the Beirut horse race track (hippodrome), on February 29th.

Beirut - Beirut’s Hippodrome lies nearly derelict and for­gotten as it approaches its 100th anniversary. An oasis of green in an ever-growing concrete city, the racetrack stands as a monument to a bygone era when princes and diplomats stopped by for a day at the races.
Beirut’s famous racetrack might soon fade into history, as a lack of funds and political corruption threaten its future.
“You should have seen the Hip­podrome before (Israel invaded Lebanon in) 1982,” said Maroun Chamoun, a horse owner and long-time racing enthusiast. “Beirut was an amazing city then. All the fami­lies used to come here every week­end. There’s no sport more beauti­ful than horse racing.”
His friend, also a veteran of the races, known simply as Dr Ghazzi, agreed, saying: “It would be packed every weekend. There were races every Saturday and Sunday. The old stands were just beautiful.”
It is hard to imagine since Bei­rut’s 100-year-old Hippodrome now is just a couple of concrete stands with a small crowd of elder­ly men betting on the few horses that run. The stands are half-filled and include a small snack counter. Behind the stands, spectators can see the horses ahead of the race as jockeys, who tend to be Lebanese or Syrian, are weighed.
“The Beirut Municipality sim­ply doesn’t care about the Hippo­drome. They don’t realise its po­tential,” said former minister and Beirut MP Nabil de Freij, who owns three horses and helps manage the Hippodrome. “It’s the lone horse racetrack in the Middle East (with betting) and the only one right in the middle of the capital. Where else can you find this?”
Indeed, one sympathises with de Freij and the Hippodrome’s older clientele, considering its rich his­tory. De Freij and his partner Nabil Nasrallah, who run the Society for the Protection and Improvement of the Arabian Horse in Lebanon (SPARCA), a non-governmental or­ganisation that maintains the Hip­podrome, display vintage posters of the track in its heyday.
“In 1916, the Ottoman govern­ment took the decision to mark this land for a casino and horse track,” Nasrallah said. “But with the coming of the French man­date what was supposed to be the casino was turned into the French ambassador’s residence. The land was leased by Alfred Sursock for 50 years and after that it was given back to the Beirut Municipality. They are the owners of the land.”
“Just look at the architecture of the place,” de Freij said, pointing to a vintage photo showing packed stands adorned with Ottoman arches. “It was much bigger and grander then. We had 1,000 horses and stables kept in different areas. We had enough horses to do races on both Saturday and Sunday. All the top visitors in Beirut would come for the races and many Beirut families as well.”
Surprisingly, for the first half of the 1975-90 civil war, races con­tinued at the Hippodrome despite it being on the demarcation line that separated Christian-controlled East Beirut from the Muslim con­trolled West.
“From 1975 to 1982, business was as usual at the Hippodrome,” Chamoun said. “People still came to the races the minute there was a ceasefire and bet on horses. They would fight one minute and then you’d find them, from both sides of the city, sitting here to watch the races on the weekend.”
All of this changed with the Is­raeli invasion in 1982. De Freij said: “The Hippodrome is at a major fo­cal point of the city. When the Is­raelis came in June 1982, they told us anyone approaching it would be shot. We couldn’t get to the hors­es.”
After managing to contact then-president Elias Sarkis and Philip Habib, the US envoy to Lebanon, who worked out an arrangement with the Israeli Army, de Freij and Nasrallah were given a four-hour period each morning to feed the horses. “We found the horses ex­hausted with their tongues swol­len. They hadn’t had water for days,” de Freij said.
Abruptly though, the Israelis warned that they had heard Pales­tinian militants were hiding in the Hippodrome. “They flattened the place. It was all gone. Even some horses died, although we man­aged to get a lot out,” de Freij said while holding a picture of the rub­ble caused by the Israeli bombard­ment.
In 1990, the Hippodrome was partially rebuilt and stands as it does today, only a mere shadow of what it once was. “Now we only have 300 horses left and can only hold races on Sundays,” de Freij said.
“We drew up plans in the 1990s to have the entire place renovated with bigger stands, restaurants, a park and a recreational centre but the municipality hasn’t given us a cent and no support. They don’t think this place is a priority and don’t see it as an opportunity to make money from the betting. They’re not happy with the betting aspect.”
Despite the Hippodrome’s diffi­culties, there might be celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary this year. As Nasrallah put it: “There is no decision by the municipality to close the Hippodrome but we are in a very tight financial situation. We cannot say anything is for certain but we are still here day after day.”