Iraq horse track defies the odds

The Baghdad Equestrian Club is proud of its illustrious past, the decades spent playing host to high-strung horses and the Baghdad Derby, with its silver cup for the winner.

These days, stray dogs crawl around its dusty brown track, and children in shorts run through the dirt. Men in coffee-stained robes and the occasional John Deere cap slam down beers, puff cigarettes and take the name of Allah in vain.

But beneath its seedy veneer, the racetrack is one of the city's miracles.

After the U.S.-led invasion six years ago, some of the best horses were stolen and ended up pulling carts of kerosene and propane in the street. Later the track was in the middle of territory claimed by the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In Baghdad's worst years, car bombs exploded at the track's gate, mortar rounds went off inside and gunmen assassinated spectators as they left. Attendance dwindled from thousands to a few hundred; some owners sold their horses.

Somehow the club defied the tide of extremism and anarchy. Veterans of the dark days are proud to point out that the track kept going, even when seemingly everything else in the city was shuttered.

Now Iraqis are coming to the races again in large numbers and the club is turning a profit. Cars jam the parking lot, and men line up by the betting booth and kill time throwing dice.

One habitue boasts about the lies he tells his pious family to cover up his weekly visits. One day he tells them he is going to his mother's grave; the next he says he is going to the shrines of Shiite saints in Najaf and Karbala.

He volunteers what could be the motto for the club, where Iraqis check political and religious tensions at the door: "I don't pray to Allah for my horse to win -- I drink whiskey and beer."

The track, founded in 1920 by the country's British colonial occupiers, retains some of the cosmopolitan flavor of a bygone era.

In the 1940s, the races, then held in the city's Mansour district, were considered the finest in the Middle East. Wealthy families bred stallions, and horse lovers and rakish gamblers mixed. Even today, businessmen, tribal sheiks and working-class Iraqis rub shoulders at the track, now tucked away on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Taleb Abdul Hussein Majid, chairman of the Baghdad Equestrian Club, had good reason to stop coming during the worst of the post-invasion violence, when Al Qaeda in Iraq would kill a man based on his sect. Majid is a Shiite and the club is in Sunni territory.

One day in early 2007, he stayed late after a race to groom his horses, and the group he usually left with for safety had already gone. He was ambushed by masked assailants who blocked the road with their cars. A bullet grazed his abdomen but he broke through the blockade.

For the next two days, Majid returned to the track with an army of friends and relatives toting weapons. Not long after, in an unrelated incident, his brother and nephew were shot to death while picking up their food rations.

Despite the attacks, he couldn't bring himself to stay away. "It would have been the end of the club," he says.

Majid remembers worrying that the Iraqi army would confiscate the track and turn it into a base. He and the remaining horse owners tapped their personal fortunes to front prize money and maintain the grounds, which are constantly in danger of turning into desert.

"God protected us," he says, sitting in his office with a closed-circuit TV tuned to the races. "I didn't have enemies. I loved the horses."

Majid isn't happy about it, but the track has served as a magnet for Baghdad's underbelly. There are stories of all-night parties, prostitution and gunrunning before and after the 2003 invasion; of how U.S. Army patrols thought they had discovered a corpse at the track, only to find out it was a drunk sleeping off a hard day at the races.

Some believe the presence of lawless types may have offered some limited protection from Al Qaeda in Iraq during the civil war.

On a busy Saturday afternoon, the club's accountant, Mussa Tabra, surveys the stands, filled with hundreds of fans.

"Here are the greatest characters in the world," he says with a smile, a big silver watch jangling like a bracelet on his wrist.

He points to a friend, a retired jockey from Darfur, Sudan, who has lived in Baghdad for more than 20 years. The jockey, he says, won the last race before the U.S.-led invasion. The rail-thin man once disappeared in the northern city of Mosul for a few years because of a feud with a more powerful jockey, only to return to win 100 races.

Next, Tabra spots a friend lurking in a stairwell and kisses him on the cheek. He introduces the man as Nabil, a bookie, who, like Tabra, never stopped coming to the track. Nabil says the civil war was a good time for betting. Many Iraqis living in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates placed bets by phone.

Tabra scowls at the bookie in mock anger, accusing him of bribing jockeys to throw races, then kisses him again.

Since the British founded the club, Tabra's family has competed in its biggest races, and Nabil's has run a gambling ring. Tabra's grandfather won the Baghdad Derby in 1931, and Tabra still has the London-made silver cup given to the winner.

"We live in our own world," Tabra says.

Bonds like these allowed the club to survive the last six years, he says. "Ninety percent of the people know each other through their fathers and grandfathers. There may have been killing outside, but the people inside were clean."

Majid and Tabra dream that someday their dust-bowl racetrack will be restored to its glory of the 1940s, when the facilities were a source of pride, not decrepit like so much in today's Iraq. For now they just enjoy the return of people to the track.

Old men puff vigorously on hookahs. Watermelon is sliced up for sale. A crowd throws wads of cash down on a game of dice, and a sunburned albino shouts, "Handicap, handicap!" hawking the club's newspaper, which includes racing tips and minutes of the last board meeting (where members worried about getting a veterinarian to treat the wild dogs that haunt the premises).

Horses with scuffed skin and numbered blankets draped on their backs are led past the stands. Some look malnourished, with their bones poking out. Bettors study their leg muscles and size for last-minute clues. Flies buzz around the snorting animals. A hay-and-manure scent fills the air.

A loudspeaker announces the start of a race and Tabra stops by the betting booths. He smiles as men wave their fists and the horses rush through a sea of dust toward the finish line. Some blame their racing buddies for making them place losing bets, and shout unprintable curses involving Allah. Those holding winning tickets cry, "I love you, I love you!"

One fan spots Tabra, dressed smartly in a pinstripe shirt and slacks. "These are all bad, filthy people here," the man says. "You are my friend. You should advise me on the good and bad horses and not mislead me."

Tabra smirks. "I don't do favors. This is gambling. . . . People lose, people win," he tells the unlucky bettor. "This is how we do it."

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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