ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – A horse club in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, launched its 2018-2019 weekly racing season with crowds of spectators betting on which horses would cross the finish line first.
“There’s still time to place your bets before they start, folks,” said one of the two announcers, known as race-callers, in English. He alternated with a female Arabic speaking counterpart to narrate the day over music on a sound system that blared throughout the afternoon.
Some cheered from bleachers or tables outside while others watched on from VIP areas. Many studied printouts of racing information, smoked hookah, or sipped soft drinks. Others sat in the comfort of the horse club’s nearby air-conditioned cafe, watching the races on video monitors and placing bets from there.
As the sun began to set behind the track, horse owners and their families kept a close eye on the performances of their horses, many of whom were brought in that morning from stables across the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Visiting equestrian experts and jockeys, many from Baghdad, worked closely with local and international club employees.
“Finally, we have the betting. We have been waiting for this, but now we have it,” EIEC Club Manager Khalid Al Rachid told Kurdistan 24. “I think people will come to try it. It really is something new for Kurdistan.”
Although the new cash betting element of the races got a brief trial run in the last event of the previous season in May, its use was limited. Races then halted for four months to spare the horses from running in the sweltering summer heat.
By the time the betting system was up and running for Friday afternoon’s second race, the level of excitement among the audience, many of whom grasped tickets, showed a marked increase as the horses galloped down the home stretch.
The suspense was noticeably greater in the races where dozens of those attending had a chance to win cash, and it seemed to spread to those who were not placing bets.
One woman on her first visit to the racetrack stood shocked as her 10,000 Iraqi dinar investment (about $8.50) in a mare named Liza turned into almost $200, a bet that had some of the better odds of the day.
As she returned to the betting table at the side of the main building to collect her winnings, those who chose other horses left their unlucky tickets on their tables or dropped them on the floor.
Winning jockeys and horse owners then lined up in front of cameras and television news crews, holding up trophies they had won.
The Erbil International Equestrian Club (EIEC) first opened its doors for riding and jumping lessons in 2011, is home to some 90 horses, and has held several international jumping competitions.
The racing side of EIEC, called the Kurdistan Jockey Club, started holding races in March 2017 after the completion of its racing track and facilities.
This season’s racing is scheduled to take place every Friday afternoon for the foreseeable future. Admission is free, and families are welcome.
Racing events will feature three to four races in classes such as local horses, thoroughbred horses, and Arabian horses.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany