Beirut'south Racetrack, Once a Chic Hotspot, Falls on Tough Times

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Source:   —  April 03, 2016, at 11:42 AM

Set interior a pine forest reserve in the heart of Beirut and walled off from the city'south concrete warrens, the Beirut Hippodrome used to keep 20-horse races that drew thousands of spectators, including the late Saudi King Faisal and Iran'south Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Beirut'south well-known racetrack, which once entertained Center Eastern royalty, has fallen on tough times, and the fight over its future is revealing competing visions for public space in the Lebanese capital.

Set interior a pine forest reserve in the heart of Beirut and walled off from the city'south concrete warrens, the Beirut Hippodrome used to keep 20-horse races that drew thousands of spectators, including the late Saudi King Faisal and Iran'south Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Now, only four to five horses running at a time, to a thinning crowd of faithful fans and inveterate gamblers.

"The prizes are too low to invite new horse owners," said Lebanese Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon, himself a horse owner and a leading member of the private organization that manages the track.

Gambling revenues are down, he explained, squeezing the track'south bottom line.

The racetrack opened in one thousand nine hundred-sixteenth and by the one thousand nine hundred fifty, it'd become portion of the architectural fabric of the youthful Lebanese republic. But it suffered greatly during the country'south 15-year civil war and never recovered its former glory.

The hippodrome sits on a prized piece of genuine estate belonging to the city, and the mayor thinks it's time to open it to the public.

"I wish this to be Beirut Central Park," said Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad, describing his map for horse riding facilities, a golf course, and an "ecology village."

Critics declare his vision is too narrow.

"A golf course is something which is extremely elitist and is ecologically unsustainable," said Mona Fawaz, an urban planning Prof at the American Univ of Beirut.

Interior the grandstands, the debate draws little concern.

Bilal Shafwan, a 47-year-old taxi driver who's been coming to the races for thirty-five years, said he believes some of the city politicians are still getting some money out of the track.

"If they couldn't thieve from the racetrack, they'd have closed it long ago," he said.

As the horses came around the track on a recent day at the races, the crowd of mostly working class men rose to its feet to cheer their favorites on. The attendance was too sparse to drown out crisp obscenities of the most enthusiastic fans.

After one race, a spectator threw his plastic lawn chair down several flights of the stands, hitting another fan below.

Shafwan said he'd hold betting despite the match-fixing allegations, he explained, "because I'm a dupe."

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