Cranes leer over the shoulder of every derelict beauty in town, threatening a bigger brighter building. All around property development wrapping brags about “sumptuous living spaces” offering “a refined way to live”; new high-rises are labelled with permanent signs arrogantly announcing that they are “super deluxe” (in case we had a doubt). The blatant wannabe profiling is on overdrive.
So sometimes it’s time to get out of the bling and return to the real Beirut, the gritty, earthy one. When you feel like this, cancel your laser hair removal, guys, and your lip pumping, girls, and postpone your subhiye at Ladurée. Instead take a service to the hippodrome, entering to the right of the Mathaf Watani (National Museum).
It’s free for women and foreigners (that is, anyone with a foreign passport, so expect to see a number of overwhelmingly Lebanese dual nationals). Otherwise, the entry is 5,000 LL for the main section (curses, chain smoke and excitement), 15,000 LL (fewer curses, less excitement, better view) or 25,000 LL if you want to pretend you are elsewhere during the races.
The gender-biased pricing scheme has done little or nothing to establish equal representation at the hippodrome. Women were few and far between. Maybe there were a few hiding in the boxes, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Nor were there any real foreigners, though I’m sure some there had had plenty of experience with flutters on horses abroad during the war years.
The races run about every half hour, preceded by a parade – or dance – round the small ring behind the grandstands by the flighty horses, and followed by enough time to dispatch a shawarma, sip a Turkish coffee, and for some, smoke a smoke or ten. Plastic tables and chairs on in the sunlit back area of the grandstand meant we could snack while overlooking the paddock and its leafy canopy.
The calm of the dappled light in the paddock was replaced by tension during the brief races as the spectators leaped to their feet forgetting arthritic knees and scattering coffee dregs, a few younger ones jumping on the fence to holler encouragement. The horses cut channels in the deep orange sand. Now and then an against-the-odds winner triggered jigs of jubilation.
For most, this was clearly a weekly outing. They rubbed shoulders with ease and familiarity, sometimes pooling funds, rarely winning, happy to while away an afternoon far from the workshop and home, at peace in a man’s world.
Races are open to the public on Sunday afternoons. For the time of the first race check the hippodrome site. During the rest of the week the hippodrome hosts occasional events such as wine festivals and crafts markets.