While sports around the world are emerging from coronavirus lockdowns with televised competitions, horseracing resumed in Beirut this week with no audience at all.
Eight races went ahead Thursday at the city’s Hippodrome with fans unable to watch or bet. For general director Nabil Nasrallah, it marked a new low point in a dramatic history since the track hosted monarchs and movie stars in the 1960s.
The grandstand was destroyed in fighting when Israel occupied Beirut in 1982 and stood on the frontline between warring factions during the country’s 15-year civil war.
The really tough times began late last year, when Lebanon’s currency began to slide, hiking prices and pushing many into poverty, Nasrallah said.
“We’ve lived through a lot … and this is the toughest time,” he added. “But we’re fighting to keep going.”
The jockeys had to wear masks and were sanitized before entering the track, which had closed for more than two months.
Lebanon which has recorded 29 deaths from COVID-19, is now gradually lifting movement restrictions, allowing businesses to open at lower capacity and with safety guidelines.
Ali Kassem, who has raced for 37 years, had gone to the tracks at five a.m. throughout the lockdown to keep the horses in shape. Racing was not televised before coronavirus but hundreds of people used to show up. Prize money was worth a few thousand dollars at most.
“It’s more enjoyable with a crowd. They create an atmosphere, excitement,” Kassem said. “But this is how it is and we have to press on for the sake of racing.”
Nasrallah agreed the stadium was dead without the crowd. Still, he said he had restarted to preserve the art of horse racing in Beirut, “because if the horse racing stops, nothing will bring it back”.