At Beirut track, bettors risk more than money


BEIRUT -- The usual crowd is here: smoothies in their sil suits; gruff working men who slipped away from work; old codgers with time on their hands and racing forms stuffed into their pockets.

This could be the regular crowd at Pimlico. But at the Beirut Race Course, being a regular has often meant risking your life as well as your money.

Take the annual Christmas race in 1979. Gunmen on one side or another in the fractious civil war opened fire on the horses at the starting line, then raked the crowd. Three spectators were wounded.

In 1985, the fans suddenly saw three rocket grenades rise over the stands. They were said to have been fired by a militia leader who had demanded -- and been refused -- protection money from the track. The grenades caused no injuries, but the ensuing stampede for the exits did.

In fact, throughout 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, the horse track has been caught in the cross-fire. It sits right on the Green Line, a no man's land that divides Christian east Beirut and Muslim west Beirut.

"There were often times when I was the only one allowed to go from the east to the west," said Nabil Nasrallah, a German-educated engineer whose love of horses made him the manager of the track.

By the standard of Maryland's manicured courses, the Beirut Race Course is a shabby sister. The 1,357-yard oval is roughly bordered by a bank of untrimmed grass. The far stretch is virtually hidden by pine trees, the few spared from the devastation of perpetual fighting. The stands are enmeshed in the scaffolding of rebuilding.

Only Arabian horses run here. They are smaller and less strong than the thoroughbreds run in most of the world. But they are graceful animals, and seem to capture the ease of the wind as their hooves berate the ground and their colorfully braided manes stream behind them.

All around the track loom high-rise buildings riddled with holes. They seem like overdone sets from a science-fiction movie about cement-eating moths. But these holes are from bullets and shells. Snipers routinely exchanged fire from opposite sides of the track.

In all but three years of the 1975-1990 civil war, the track managed to put on some races, according to Mr. Nasrallah. This despite the casualties: in 1977, a horse named Simsam won the year's first race despite a gunshot wound to his neck; in 1982, the Israeli Army's invasion killed more than 100 horses.

So far, the 1990 cease-fire to the civil war is holding. Each Sunday brings 6,000 to 8,000 fans to the track, a mix of the Muslim, Christian and Druse who were at odds during the fighting.

But well-armed Lebanese military police still line the race course. Not all the gunfire comes from political differences. When a four-horse pile-up at the New Year's race in 1984 caused officials to disqualify the long shot winner, a disgruntled bettor fired a rocket grenade into the race committee's tower. No one was hurt.

The recent safety given to the patrons does not extend to their money, however. The races are not renowned as models of honesty. One wizened regular grumped during a recent Sunday that he knew that only two of the seven races that day were fair. Equally influential owners were competing in those races, he said, so the bookmakers refrained from fixing the race.

Indeed, as he spoke, two horses were pulled from the starting line of the first race with the explanation that their jockeys were suspected of having taken bribes.

Mr. Nasrallah, an urbane man who has ready answers in three languages for the telephones that ring incessantly on his desk, fell mostly silent on this subject.

The talk of fixing is largely bettors' hype, he said. But he acknowledged "it might happen that some of the races are less (( than normal."

At a nearby stable, the race hands were not nearly so reticent. Their favorite horse, King's Crown, is a beautiful gray four-year-old they described with absolute certainty as the strongest and fastest Arabian in Lebanon.

The week before, when bets on King's Crown were heaviest, the men and the boys of the stable had plunked down their hard-earned dollars. But the jockey mysteriously steered the sleek horse away from the fence and out of the running, they said.

A search was on for the jockey, said the race hands, a menacing glint in their eyes.

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