Wednesday 21 February 2018

Two centuries on, horse racing fervour still unites Mauritians

Two centuries on, horse racing fervour still unites Mauritians
(AFP 10/21/16)

As the horses round the last bend, the crowd starts shouting, their cries crescendoing into deafening cheers as the jockeys bear down on the finish line.

"The Deacon" noses across the line in first place and a man leaps in the air, frantically waving his arms, clutching in his hand the winning betting slip.

Horse racing is a virtual religion in Mauritius and the Champ de Mars racecourse its temple.

The 200-year-old track in the centre of the capital Port Louis has long been a lure for people from across the island's hotchpotch of cultures: Hindus, Muslims, Tamils, Chinese, Creoles and descendants of British and French settlers.

In many ways, the history of horse racing in Mauritius reflects the multi-ethnic history of the Indian Ocean archipelago nation from the colonial era to today.

Horse racing was introduced by British colonialists in 1812 and turned out to be a rare example of "equine diplomacy" -- and one in which the results far exceeded expectations.

Known as "Isle de France" during its 95 years as a French protectorate, Mauritius was surrendered to the British in 1810 after a long battle for control over the Indian Ocean trade routes.

The new British governor, Robert Farquhar, had a French wife and was eager to maintain good relations with the Franco-Mauritian settlers who ran the island's economy.

- Bets across social divide -

Farquhar decided to organise the first horse races in Port Louis on a former French military training ground "to bring the English and French together on neutral ground, to improve the mood in the country," said Khalid Rawat, deputy manage of the Mauritius Turf Club.

The track's opening was announced to the white settlers on June 15, 1812, but when the first three races were held 10 days later, organisers were amazed to find "the entire population of the island" attending.

"It wasn't just the French and the English who were there," Rawat said.

"All the different communities on the island were given the opportunity to visit the Champ de Mars and witness this new spectacle."

With this, the Mauritius Turf Club was born, believed to be the third oldest racing club in the world.

Two centuries later, the passion is undimmed. The four major races of the year such as the Maiden Cup -- the Mauritian equivalent of England's prestigious Epsom Derby -- still attract tens of thousands of spectators.

- A day at the races -

On an ordinary race day, around 2,000 people spent a Saturday afternoon in early October watching, betting and closely reading the racing form.

In the club's shaded enclosure, a small gallery of spectators observed the horses being paraded ahead of the next race, looking out for telltale signs of injury, nervousness or fighting spirit.

In the yard close by, the bookies do a brisk trade inviting the public to part with their cash or take a more daring bet, shouting in Creole, "Zoue lizie ferme!" or "Play with your eyes shut!"

Races every half-hour are signalled by a loud siren from the speakers and the names of race favourites echo around the course.

Kristy Ballah, a 33-year-old banker, is all smiles. A life-long lover of horses, he took the plunge last year and invested in a racehorse, a gamble that just came good as "The Deacon" won the second race of the day.

The Champ de Mars "is a place where everyone feels comfortable bringing their family, regardless of social status," says Ballah, dressed in a smart suit and tie.

"It's a place where everyone feels like one big family."

- 'Every Mauritian's a punter' -

Ballah may feel like all the spectators are the same, but they don't all watch from the same place.

Mauritian high society occupies the stands, sharply dressed and holding binoculars while those of more modest means stand track side for free.

But as Clecy Jhury, a 60-year-old retired janitor puts it, everyone's there for the entertainment.

"The betting's just for fun. Winning is good, but losing? That's good too," he says.

"I like coming here, it's great fun," says Franco Genave, 24, who prefers the races to watching football on television, "because it's right there, live!"

For Rawat, the enthusiasm is understandable. "From father to son, every Mauritian's a punter."

But not all are in it for the harmless thrill of placing a small wager.

"Forget about the horses," says Anais, an intent 20-year-old gambler.

"I came here to make some money."

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