Today we are going to the horse races! What better place to do it than an Arab country, full of beautiful Arabian horses.
Following a late breakfast we were on our way in search of the Hippodrome. We sort of started driving in the general direction of the place and hoped we bump into it at some point. And we did! After we drove past it a couple of times completely unaware that that was what we were looking for.
We found a parking spot near what looked like the main gate but before we managed to get out of the car, a soldier waved at us from across the street and started walking toward us. He clearly wanted to talk to us and I didn’t think we were going to like what he had to say. Sure enough he said we can’t park here. He didn’t speak English so we couldn’t quite understand but I wasn’t going to argue with an armed man. It was probably something to do with the fact that the French embassy was across the street from us. Who knows?
We headed towards a side gate we had seen (and passed) previously and miraculously found a parking spot right outside it. We had no idea what was going on. It looked kind of dead. We had no idea if we could park there, so we just sat in the car for a bit waiting for someone to come and kick us out. But nobody did so we braved outside and toward the gate. There were some soldiers by the gate who stopped us but then let us go when we spoke English to them. They even gave us directions because we had no idea where we were going. Then there were two old men sitting a tiny booth by another, smaller gate. They also didn’t speak English but we figured they wanted our names so they could check if we were on the list. We obviously weren’t but they didn’t know enough English to discuss it with us so they just let us through. And then we were at the track and there was hardly anyone. We had no idea if there were any races that day at all!
We made our way up some steps towards a somewhat dilapidated are that sported some white plastic tables and chairs. There was a nice breeze there which was very welcome in the heat of Beirut so we sat down and casually started at some trees outside the window, occasionally glancing in the direction of the track. I took a photo. There was still nobody.
I then suggested we moved a bit closer to the track. As if keeping a closer look at it would speed things up. I tried taking a photo and got told off. Apparently wasn’t allowed. After a while some horses came out and restlessly walked toward a starting point on the other side of the track. By this point there were a few more people who were all going upstairs. So I thought we should go there too. Although I had no idea if we were allowed or that was some space where only special people wee admitted. I thought we go anyway and if someone stopped us we would play foreign.
We sat right in the middle of the stand and waited for the races to begin. Eventually it did. We were talking about the horses, choosing favourites, guessing which horse would win and being totally wrong about the outcome. The race finished in less than a minute and I hadn’t enjoyed it all that much because I hadn’t bet. After the race had finished nobody had left so we figured there were more races. The place was now packed. Mainly with old Lebanese men who looked like they had been doing this for years. There were some young boys, some middle aged men and even some families. Seeing mums and kids there made me feel a bit more comfortable about my own presence at the Hippodrome.
I so wanted to take a photo, it would have been a beautiful panorama but there were soldiers with big guns everywhere and I wouldn’t want to get told off again or looked at nastily by the old men. Apparently betting is a highly competitive and secretive business.
The second lot of horses came out and this time I was paying much closer attention. The first race was kind of a trial, a test run, an initiation into horse racing. As soon as they came out I spotted a beautiful black horse and I knew this was the one I was going to bet on. I didn’t (and still don’t) know anything about horse racing or betting so I chose my horse based on looks. It looked pretty and that was good enough for me. And let me tell you choosing a racing horse based on their looks is a sure way to lose! But I couldn’t bet on any other horse because none of them were black and in my romantic head the epitome of an Arabian horse is a black horse. It was No.5. My friend who had a bit more experience at this choose horse No.4. I shoved a LBP10,000 note in his hand and asked him to go place our bets. He came back less than a minute after he’d gone holding a little receipt. We were on!
Now that the bets were on, we anxiously waited the start of the race. This time the starting point was a little closer to us and we could see better. I couldn’t sit still and long before the race started I was up and leaning over the fence, craning my neck to get a better look of the horses. One of them was particularly restless and the start got delayed a bit. But then they were off, and we were cheering and screaming alongside hundreds of other people. They were nearing the finish line and then they crossed it and my No.5, my Black Beauty, my Arabian stud …crossed it last! No.4 didn’t do much better. But boy did we have fun! I would have gladly stayed for the rest of the day but we had beaches to go to and we slowly started making our way out. We walked back where we had come from and we came across the next lot of horses that were being taken to the track by their carers. The realisation slowly dawned on us…we were using the back entrance, the one designed for employees, beautiful horses and jockeys. Certainly not for foreigners. We walked towards the gate and stopped to look at the horses. They were big, and restless and in perfect shape. Differently coloured, all of the Arabian, the best of the best. So much power and beauty, so much character and emotion. My face was a massive grin, unable to believe what I was seeing, feeling so incredibly lucky to be able to experience these stunning animals from such a close distance. Their beauty leaving me breathless and close to tears.