Beirut Hippodrome resists closure during its 100th anniversary

“..We are still fighting. We are still here, which is a miracle..”

“Look what Israel destroyed for nothing. All this was completely destroyed. Completely…” Minister Nabil de Freij laments, musing through faded pictures of Beirut’s demolished horse racing track. A relic of the Ottoman era, the hippodrome was once a symbol of Lebanese pride, hosting dignitaries from across the world under the shade of its ornate canopy and jutting stone columns. De Freij tells SoBeirut that he had one last glimpse of the original stadium in 1982 while rescuing horses from their stables just hours before Israeli forces levelled the complex in search of militants. Despite the war, somehow the hippodrome survived and is set to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. However, a potentially fatal combination of circumstances including municipal neglect and illegal gambling has many worrying that this year could be one of its last.

Since 1998 the Beirut municipality has been planning to privatize the hippodrome so that it can be demolished and the land repurposed for commercial use. The proposal has been controversial as the stadium is among the last of the city’s public green spaces and is lauded for its historic significance, which goes beyond horse racing alone. For example, a ritzy casino that had been designed as the hippodrome’s centerpiece hosted the official inauguration of the Lebanese Republic. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire the casino then became the residence of the French Ambassador, as it remains to this day.

The rest of the hippodrome was not so fortunate. Following the bombing of its grandstands during the civil war the municipality began an ambitious reconstruction project but later cut funding, leaving the stadium half finished. Today the completion of the hippodrome looks increasingly unlikely as the government eyes plans to sell the land to private developers.

Mohammad Ayoub, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Nahnoo, has been one of the leading opponents of the privatization effort. “We know we have a lack of green spaces. For Lebanese 0.4 meters squared each individual has, and it should be, from public health perspective, 12 meters square,” explains Ayoub. “That’s why for me the hippodrome is a good potential to increase this green spaces. In addition to that the hippodrome in Lebanon plays an important role in our collective memory.”

Ayoub says that initially, the municipality wanted to use the land to create a green shopping center populated with chain restaurants and a man-made lake. Later, the plan was adapted to include a mini golf court, all without the inclusion of public feedback. “Usually you make a participatory needs assessment to see what people need, then you look what potential do we have. Then based on the potential you design what you want.”

For years opponents have managed to stall the hippodrome’s privatization but now the racetrack may be facing the straw that breaks the camel’s back. As the only country in the region where spectators can bet on horses, Lebanon’s hippodrome is completely dependent on gambling revenues to cover its operating costs. In the last three years these vital funds have decreased dramatically due to a surge in illegal gambling circles that have become popular in part because they enable participants to bypass standard ethical restrictions, such as using credit to place bets.

“We have a very active illegal betting which is making a lot of [problems], which is very negative to us,” reveals Nabil Nasrallah, the General Manager of the Beirut hippodrome. “The turnover of a racing day… was $200,000, now it’s less. Now we are in a very, very bad situation. I think [illegal betting] it’s at least five times more [money] than what we have as betting here… That means if you have here $200,000 they have one million minimum of betting.”

According Nasrallah, the hippodrome’s financial crisis has sent Lebanon’s horse racing industry into a downward spiral. Reduced gambling revenues means lower rewards for race winners which, “is very important, [it] has to be high in order to encourage the horse owner to come and race and breed the horse,” says Nasrallah. “Everything affected the horse racing here. That means most of the horse owners they didn’t renew their horses because of the situation, because of the uncertainty of the permanent racing here.”

To Minister de Freij, who heads the Association for Protection and Improvement of Arab Horses, a nonprofit organization that manages the racetrack, the hippodrome represents a lost income-generating opportunity for the municipality. “In Dubai they don’t have bettings, in Kuwait they don’t have, in Saudi Arabia of course not… We are the only country in all the Middle East and in all the Arab world were betting is allowed by law. Betting is the biggest income for a hippodrome … so it was an opportunity that we had here in Lebanon for decades and that the municipality of Beirut never wanted to take it as an advantage and make this hippodrome very prestigious.”

The minister explains that finishing the stadium would attract back race-goers and horse jockeys, which would enable more races and therefore more betting revenues. He estimates the renovation, with seating, restaurants and forested park in the middle of the track, would cost around $15 million, adding that “They have one billion in the banks, and for them its an investment… they have a percentage given by the law of the banks. They would have money coming back, return on investment very quickly if they know how to do it.”

Although Ayoub is doubtful that the municipality will move forward with privatization before the next election and the formation of a new council, the administrators at the hippodrome aren’t wasting any time. They hope that this year’s centennial anniversary events will raise awareness about the racetrack and draw in new patrons. Between May and October the hippodrome plans to host numerous activities including an Arabian horse show, horseback riding, amateur and endurance racing, and even performing artists such as singers.

If the programming doesn’t increase turnout at the hippodrome, Lebanon’s horse racing industry could continue to decline. “We are still fighting. We are still here, which is a miracle,” says Minister de Freij “Nobody believes after all what I told you, that we are still here.”


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