Blogs > Cliopatria > A Day at the Races

Sep 21, 2004 2:10 pm

A Day at the Races

In the 1950’s, a huge stretch of land in the Mansur area was turned into a turf club and stables. The patron of the Turf Club was Prince Abdulillah, the Regent, the young King Faisal II’s uncle. He was also made one of nine Stewards of the Club, along with currently serving Prime Ministers, Ministers of Finance and other notability of Baghdad; in 1951, these included a huge racing enthusiast, Dr. Abdul Hadi al-Pachachi and the British Air Vice Marshall, G.R Beamish (This was 1951; Iraq had been technically independent for 21 years but the British still thought that the country could not run its own Air Force). A large racecourse in the Mansur district was opened to the public on the occasion when races were run. A company whose patron was yet again the Regent managed it. Among its many Stewards were the famous General Ghazi Al-Daghistani, descendant of a Caucasian noble who had fled Russia for Iraq in search of pure-bred horses; Mr. Sa’doun Al-Shawi, a scion of the Ubayd tribe (famed for their Arabian mares); Mr. Jazmi Suleiman, whose father, the noted Turkish-speaking historian, Suleiman Faiq, himself was the son of Georgian officials, as well as one British Brigadier and Squadron Leader. The stream of visitors to the Mansur race course (Arabicized by Iraqis as al-rayssis) included jockeys, racehorse owners, stable boys and race fans as well as some of the notables of Baghdad. Until today, members of the exiled Iraqi elite in Britain and Jordan remember with particular passion the ravishing Mrs. Levi (the Iraqis referred to her as Mrs. Lawi), the Austrian wife of a British Jewish diplomat stationed in Baghdad. She created a sensation when she attended the races in Mansur; some worldly Iraqis even compared her to Hedy Lamarr (who, I believe, was also Austrian-born or was she of Hungarian ancestry?).

The Times Press of Baghdad published a booklet called “Races Past” in 1951 (in my possession) which details every single race run or horse registered during the year. I believe it was written by Major Chadwick, then the Secretary of the Iraq Turf Club. Among other racing trivia, it notes jockeys’ licenses, their names, license number and lowest riding weight. But perhaps the singular achievement of this unprepossessing book is the great attention paid to the history of the sport. Lists of horses and ponies are appended, as well as lists of their owners. Monetary prizes in the form of Plates and Handicaps are recorded (some as high as 225 Iraqi Dinars, a fortune in those days). The book is peppered with the names of the major tribal sections and their leaders, many of whom invested in stables in which their fleet Arabian mares went head to head with those of the urban Baghdadi gentry. I remember the rayssis as a child; even though the book is written in a dry and official style, it brings back the fun and excitement of those days and reminds me of a typical Baghdadi pursuit now shrouded in memory.

In the late 1990’s, Saddam Hussein resolved to build the largest mosque in the Arab world in Mansur, right there on the fabled racetrack. My explanation is that he thought he could banish sin by erecting a mosque on it. Although he destroyed the rayssis, he sure got his comeuppance. After his fall, the mosque was taken over by the Al-Sadr organization, Saddam’s erstwhile victims. They now hold sway in the largest incomplete mosque in Baghdad. Justice did prevail. All the same, a race track it sure a’int.

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