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Horse racing's just the ticket for struggling Israeli farmers


NIR YAFE, Israel - It seems a far-fetched scheme for this farm village: With the help of outside investors, community leaders want to build a horse racing track, though Israelis hardly know the sport and two of the principal promoters acknowledge that they have never actually seen thoroughbreds thunder around a dirt oval.

The promoters do know that farming collectives in northern Israel are struggling to survive. More than half the farmers here no longer farm, and those that do need second jobs to support their families.

The community wants to carve a track from 60 acres of olive groves and fruit trees and build a resort with hotels and restaurants that could create 3,000 jobs. Farmers would switch from growing olives to baling hay and working the stables.

A committee in Israel's parliament and the minister of agriculture have endorsed the plan as a way of raising much-needed revenue for the Gilboa region, but the plan must be approved by other government officials.

"It is something unique," said Eid Saleem, an Arab-Israeli who serves as deputy mayor for the Gilboa Regional Council, responsible for the areas between the towns of Afula and Bet Shean. "There is no reason why this cannot succeed. This is not just another initiative."

Most of the roughly 200 residents of Nir Yafe are immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia and Kurdistan. Their community is an agricultural collective known as a moshav, but it consists largely of dilapidated houses, unkempt lawns and abandoned cars stripped to their frames. Unemployment in the area hovers around 50 percent.

"I love farming. It's in my soul. But there is nothing here," said Sagi Salsman, 33, the father of three young children, and who inherited a bungalow and 12- acre farm from his parents, just beyond the moshav's boundaries. "A track will help develop this area and produce jobs. We must have something else besides farming or we won't make it."

The main argument among residents is not whether to build the track but whether Nir Yafe will reap all the benefits, to the exclusion of its neighbors. The landscape is a patchwork in shades of green, lined with olive and fruit trees, wheat and vegetables, with Afula visible in the distance.

"Everything there will be uprooted," said Saleem, standing at the edge of the property. "You've got to take care of scenery, but you also got to take care of people's lives. People here are suffering. People have left agriculture and are sitting at home doing nothing."

While there are no formal designs for the racetrack, the land under review is owned by the state. Organizers say an initial investment of $20 million could bring in $220 million in revenue the first year.

There are plenty of reasons to believe Israelis would support a racetrack. Thousands already patronize a casino just over the border in Taba, Egypt, and thousands more used to visit a casino in the West Bank city of Jericho, before Palestinian-Israeli violence forced it to close.

State lottery officials estimate that more than 150 illegal casinos are operating in Israel, generating $3.3 billion a year, compared with $670 million by the official national lottery. Police say the illicit gambling is largely controlled by rival Russian gangs based in Israel that are also blamed for occasional violence.

Attempts to circumvent a law barring organized gambling have prompted creative proposals. Two years ago, investors sought to transform a cargo plane into a flying casino, complete with card tables, roulette wheels and slot machines. Up to 230 passengers could have gambled during daily four-hour flights circling the Mediterranean Sea.

"I think it would have been a success," said Moshe Leshem, a lawyer for the investors, who obtained approval from two government ministries before Israel's Supreme Court ruled that an airborne casino would violate the law.

"If this new horse track really materializes, then other people will follow," Leshem said. "It is only a matter of who is going to be first. But I think that betting on horses will be too complicated. You have to know something about horses and horse racing, and that is not developed here in Israel."

In recent years, casino boats docked in Israel before sailing into international waters in the Red Sea. Police said they had assumed that the boats were exempt from the prohibition against casinos until the Supreme Court ruled, as with the airplane idea, that landing in Israel violated anti-gambling statutes. In January, 500 police raided five cruise ships in the southern resort town of Eilat in an operation dubbed "Baywatch," confiscating millions of dollars allegedly linked to organized crime.

Meanwhile, a group of private investors has proposed building legal casinos in Eilat if the law is changed. National lottery spokeswoman Doleen Melnick said her organization opposes the plan, but only because the lottery wants to establish five casinos of its own, including one at Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv.

"The amount of money that these industries generate is enormous," Melnick said. "There are so many illegal casinos and the police don't succeed in closing them. Let's open a legal one, give it to the Israeli lottery and let the public enjoy the profits."

The national lottery, which advertises itself as a "fun way to support Israel," boasts that 95 percent of its profits are earmarked for schools, hospitals and other services. Melnick said her agency supports building a horse track in Nir Yafe and would run the gambling.

There already is one horse track in Israel, in the northern town of Pardes Hannah, with racing up to 14 days a year. As many as 1,000 spectators pay a $10 entrance fee, line a grass embankment and sip white wine as the races unfold.

But the closest they come to betting is choosing a horse and collecting a toy if it wins.

"We do it for the pleasure," said co-owner Elhanan Freulick. He said there are 150 horses training to race in Israel, half of them thoroughbreds and half Arabians, along with 17 jockeys.

Freulick, who serves as chairman of Israel's Jockey Association, said professional horse racing couldn't be introduced in Israel without his help and support. The organizers, he said, "will have to cooperate with us, the jockeys. We are the founders of racing in Israel."

Freulick said he would allow gambling at his track, with bets capped at a low dollar amount, but insisted that people will watch horse racing just for the fun of it. Supporters of a track in Nir Yafe scoff at such notions.

"Horse racing without gambling is not going to work," said Saleem, the council's deputy mayor. "The whole thing is about gambling."

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