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Still horsing around

The unharnessed opportunity of Lebanon

by Ellen Hardy

On Easter Monday, the Hippodrome hosts a new horse race, one a little different from all the others. Just six or seven horses will run that day, and to the untrained eye, the beasts stampeding around the track may look much the same as all the others billeted in the Hippodrome’s stables. But whereas the regular runners set their owners back in the region of $8,000 to $10,000, those running on Easter Monday can be worth around $50,000 – possibly much more. 

The difference is that their bloodlines are DNA accredited by the World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO), a British-based society that controls the stud books for purebred Arabian horses all over the world. The Easter race in Beirut for WAHO horses is the first of its kind in Lebanon, opening a new chapter for investors in high-class equines, and throwing the precarious situation of their heartland, the Hippodrome, into sharp relief.

Arabian steeds are desert horses, a breed perhaps as much as 4,500 years old, favored by the ancient Egyptians and the Bedouin in battle. A Bedouin myth describes Allah creating the Arabian horse from the south wind, saying: “I create thee, Oh Arabian. To thy forelock, I bind Victory in battle. / On thy back, I set a rich spoil / And a Treasure in thy loins. / I establish thee as one of the Glories of the Earth. / I give thee flight without wings.” 

This is the sort of story that gives aficionados of the breed their passionate emotional investment in their charges. Known for their speed, agility and physical beauty, Arabian horses have high-set tails, large eyes and the famous ‘dished’ faces. When the automobile replaced horses for transport in Lebanon at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was this breed that stayed on in local programs for racing and beauty pageants. Farms such as that of Future Movement Member of Parliament Nabil de Freige, whose father was a founding member of WAHO in 1967, still breed them today, though as objects of personal passion rather than in expectation of any great profit. 

“I was born between their legs,” says de Freige. “In Lebanon, you have some experienced guys — my father was one of them — who could tell you [from the horse’s] action, his character, his way of running, his muscles, even his ears, his eyes, the largeness of his muzzle, if it’s really an Arabian horse. And me also, I can see.” 

Breeding trouble

But despite this long lineage of professional breeders, in recent history the fortune of Arabians in Lebanon has been fraught. During the chaos of the civil war, illegally imported horses and unscrupulous breeders contaminated bloodlines with thoroughbred blood to produce faster horses. Post-war, de Freige and others were able to build up a collection of horses they considered purebred. Problems came when submitting this collection to WAHO for consideration. The WAHO Arabian horse definition is “one which appears in any pure-bred Arabian Stud Book or Register listed by WAHO as acceptable.” And though Lebanese “oral pedigrees” and blood tests may satisfy local experts of an animal’s heritage, WAHO DNA testing is very strict, even if the horse’s physical appearance would put off traditional experts. Nabil Nasrallah, director of the Society for the Protection and Improvement of the Arabian Horse (SPARCA), describes Lebanon as an “orphan” from WAHO.

So there exists today two classes of race horse in Lebanon: around 1,700 that are accepted by the local stud book, with its relatively low financial worth, and the few WAHO horses that the organization considers acceptable by their DNA testing criteria — originally one stallion and 24 mares, their numbers have now grown to around 200. In contrast to the local horses, the WAHO horses have a high international market value for sale and competition. Despite the bloodline travails, the nucleus is there to build a profitable industry. Much of the work of improving Lebanese stock is made easier by the legal loophole that allows artificial insemination for WAHO horses, unique in equine breeding programmes. Rather than investing in a breeding stallion for a hundred thousand dollars, frozen semen from a WAHO stallion can be flown in at a cost of $500–$50,000 per dose, depending on the lineage of the stallion. 

But although interest is on the rise, to date there has been little real competition and investment in Lebanon: most foals are sold on to Dubai at around one year old, to take advantage of their superior training facilities, and potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. The question is whether enough Lebanese investors can be attracted to make such schemes part of a cohesive network of breeding, training, trade and racing in Lebanon.

Passion not profits

The business of breeding and owning horses in Lebanon is not, traditionally, for those seeking profits, though around 7,000 families are said to depend on horses for their livelihood. 

“Having horses is a hobby and a passion but it also costs lots of money. Nobody can really earn money with this,” warns de Freige. 

For local horses, as well as the costs of acquiring the animal, they cost around $6,000 per year each, or $500 a month at the Hippodrome, to feed, train and maintain for racing. Training starts a year later in Arabian foals than it does with thoroughbred racehorses, and though Arabians bred exclusively for showing as beauty horses can be kept and trained privately, facilities and expertise in Lebanon are far from professional. Race winnings at the Hippodrome are never more than about $2,000, which is all that SPARCA, which runs the Hippodrome for the Municipality of Beirut, can afford from its income. These revenues are generated by the betting volume of around $250,000 per year and has remained relatively static since roughly 1996. 

Though one or two horses might make money, they have no international value and as a general rule private stables will operate at a loss.

For WAHO horses the picture is currently similar, though the stakes are much higher; WAHO horses can be worth five to 10 times as much as their local counterparts, and their breeding and prize money potential is much greater. But there are two elements that could change this picture: attracting increased investment to produce a thriving WAHO program, and investment in the Hippodrome to increase its capacity for horses and facilities for race-goers.

Hi Ho Hippodrome

The first WAHO race is a step in this direction, as are the WAHO beauty pageants that have been held in the Bekaa for the last two years and are due again this summer. According to Youssef Chahine, a WAHO horse owner and advisor to the Minister for Youth and Sports, they attract around 1,000 spectators and offer prize money up to $5,000 drawn from local sponsors, suggesting that there is a growing potential for the animals bred as show horses rather than for racing. But “it’s very expensive to compete with the best horses in the world in Dubai,” with their desert race runs and air-conditioned stables, he points out. Still, all experts Executive spoke to agreed that now is a good time to consider investing in WAHO horses in Lebanon.

But for both de Freige and Nasrallah, what is really holding back the future of horse racing in Lebanon is the state of the Hippodrome. A treasured element of Beirut’s heritage, the structure was almost completely demolished by the Israeli army in 1982 and today cannot support the crowds for the number and size of events needed to make the enterprise turn a profit. 

“We need an infrastructure,” says Nasrallah. “If you go in the middle of the racetrack you need toilets, you need walking areas, you need a lot of things we cannot afford to do today.” The Hippodrome currently does not cover its costs from the 15 percent of betting volume it receives annually. They have some financial reserves, says Nasrallah, but “we are coming into trouble very soon.” $15 million, he estimates, would do the job, and give the industry a shot at regenerating itself, with more facilities and stables on site and opening part of the Hippodrome’s park to the public. But although the municipality gains five percent of the betting volume, there are currently no moves to boost the Hippodrome in this way. 

“They don’t know what they have,” concludes Nasrallah. “The race track is not only betting and getting money out of betting, it’s a whole generating wheel of workmanship, from the breeders to the jockeys to the lads to everybody… to bring the people to do something positive, it’s very, very difficult if it’s not in their direct interest.”

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Ellen Hardy

Ellen Hardy worked in digital media in Beirut, London, and Paris before returning to Oxfordshire in 2016 to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, graduating with Distinction in 2018. She joined UEA in 2019 as a CHASE-funded postgraduate researcher in Creative-Critical Writing. Her writing has appeared in various publications, and her research project is a historical novel based on a 17th-century cabinet of curiosity.
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