An iconic landmark in the heart of the city, Beirut Hippodrome continues its 100-year horse racing tradition. We meet a few of its biggest advocates, fighting for the development and preservation of one of Beirut’s largest remaining green spaces
It’s the day before the Sunday races and at 7am, the Beirut Hippodrome is awash with activity. It’s a standard Saturday morning training ahead of the weekly races, when horses compete on one of the Middle East’s oldest tracks. Within a vast 200,000 sqm of unspoiled land, the historic hippodrome provides the perfect vantage point to see Beirut. One of the largest remaining green areas without construction, the chaotic skyline of high-rise buildings surrounds its parameter. Today’s stormy sky makes a fitting backdrop to the hippodrome’s iconic pine trees – a remnant of the 600,000 sqm forest that once covered the area.
A CHECKERED HISTORY
This year, Beirut Hippodrome celebrates its 100-year heritage with a series of events under the patronage of Judge Ziad Chbib, the Mohafez of Beirut. During the Ottoman rule of Lebanon, the wali (governor) of Beirut agreed to a plan by wealthy Beirutis to build a modern hippodrome, mirroring those of Europe, with a casino in the middle of the track. Lebanese aristocrat Alfred Sursock was given the contract and construction started in 1916. At the time the Ottomans lost the war, only the casino had been completed. In 1920, French General Henri Gouraud, declared the republic of Greater Lebanon from the unopened casino. The building was taken as the seat of the French Mandate and remains the residence of the French ambassador.
The hippodrome became one of the busiest race tracks in the world in the ‘60s, with races twice a week. “It was a very nice hippodrome from the ‘30s until the ‘60s,” says Nabil De Freige, the President of Beirut Hippodrome, Minister of Administrative Reform and Member of Parliament, who is a well-known advocate of horse racing, sitting outside his stables. “You had a lot of politicians and presidents who came for official visits and they used to ask for their meetings to be on the weekend because they wanted to come and see the races. The Shar of Iran and his wife came, King Paul of Greece. It has a really nice history.”
Returning to Lebanon in 1971, electronic engineer Nabil Nasrallah was appointed general manager of the race track by Henri Pharaon, a Lebanese politician who had the biggest stables of Arabian horses during the ‘50s and ‘60s and was one of the hippodrome’s biggest advocates. His statue now watches over the tracks. “It was very interesting for me because there was a lot of work to be done,” Nasrallah says from his office, its walls lined with numerous photos of the hippodrome, past and present. From the renovation of its original arched façades, to installing one of the world’s earliest electronic betting systems, Nasrallah took on the project to modernize the hippodrome. Remaining open throughout most of the Lebanese Civil War, its location in a no man’s land between Christian and Muslim areas, meant the hippodrome remained relatively well-preserved, until an Israeli tank destroyed much of the site in 1982. “This is a picture I took just afterwards,” Nasrallah says, holding a photograph showing the old hippodrome reduced to rubble. “They bombed all the columns. The whole building collapsed. That’s why we came to the realization of a new stadium built from concrete,” he says.
Though the structure remains incomplete, the construction of concrete grandstands in 1990 ensured the continuity of competitions and horse racing in Lebanon. “It provided the Arabian horse’s sustainability, not only through bets, but mainly through the financial contribution of those passionate about horses,” says Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaon. He has continued the family heritage of horse racing, owning stables with about 60 horses at the racetrack. For him, the Beirut Hippodrome remains an important icon in Beirut and he is committed to its preservation. “It is a 100-year-old pure Lebanese heritage ensuring a very noble activity which is horse breeding and racing. It’s a symbol of continuity, an old tradition dating back many centuries, which I have inherited with responsibility, pleasure and passion,” he says, also noting that the track represents one of Beirut’s “most important and attractive green breathing outlets.”
CHALLENGES FACING BEIRUT HIPPODROME
Beirut Hippodrome is now run by the Society for the Protection and Improvement of the Arabian Horse in Lebanon (SPARCA) on behalf of the Beirut Municipality. The non-profit organization was formed by a group of passionate supporters of the Arabian horse. It’s one of the world’s oldest breeds and the horse has a long history in Lebanon. In 2015, the Beirut Hippodrome held the Lebanese Arabian Horse Championship to help preserve the heritage of the breed, its second edition took place in May this year.
Though races still take place weekly, the hippodrome is currently working as a shadow of its former self. “Starting in 1920 there was regular racing twice a week and it continued every Saturday and Sunday until the ‘70s. Now we have had to cut back to once a week and we have an average of six horses racing. We used to have 15,” Nasrallah says. Though SPARCA takes a percentage of bets from weekly races, with less horses running and fewer bets being placed, there is currently no spare money to develop and improve the hippodrome. “We need a big investment from the owner, the Municipality of Beirut, in order to rebuild. We need to improve the hippodrome and invest to attract new owners. Once you have new owners, we will have more horses and more races and the profits will be bigger,” De Freige says. “It’s a chain of economy, everyone will benefit.”
De Freige estimates the cost of renovating the hippodrome to be around USD10-15 million. It’s an investment that he believes will not only be recovered but will also create many jobs. “We are the only hippodrome in the Middle East where betting is permitted. It’s a big opportunity,” De Freige comments. For Nasrallah, the best way to kick start horse racing in Lebanon is to introduce more stables, which will “encourage new owners to bring their horses.” There are plans to build another 400 stables at the Hippodrome and open a public green space within the park. “We have worked a lot to defend the green area here. It’s one of the few peaceful spaces within turbulent Beirut,” Nasrallah adds.
According to Pharaon, many horse racing experts believe the Beirut Hippodrome is “enviable, with its long history and potential for development.” And though financial constraints are a challange, he is positive about the future after a proposal from the Minister of Finance and De Freige to recognize the hippodrome as a protected heritage site: “Based on the late decision of the Council of Ministers in considering the racecourse an important component of Lebanese heritage, I am confident that funding will be secured towards the realization of an International Hippodrome and a recreational park in Beirut.” With a new wave of interest in showing, racing and breeding Arabian horses, there is hope for its sustainability. “There is a big interest among the new generation. Today there are a lot of newcomers for Arabian horse racing and showing,” says Nasrallah. His hopes are that returning Beirut Hippodrome to its former glory will give a boost to the field in Lebanon.
Beirut Hippodrome currently offers an atmospheric day trip for visitors, with races taking place every Sunday and holidays. Special events take place throughout the year such as Ladies Day, which continues an international tradition of dressing up for the races, and floodlit night races.
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