BAGHDAD, Iraq—On a bleary Monday morning, faced with the madness of Baghdad and its car bombs, long gasoline lines and American soldiers with machine guns, Hussein Jassim made what he said was his best decision in months: He went to the racetrack.
Without a word to his wife or children, Jassim dressed for work—he's a quality control supervisor at the Trade Ministry—and drove straight to the Baghdad Equestrian Club. The club is a dirt track in the western quarter of the city, where a man—no Iraqi women in sight—can drink beer and place bets all afternoon long.
Between the races—usually six a day—there are card tables outside where Iraqis throw down their money on dice games.
Jassim is a Shiite Muslim, whose leaders have a well-known disdain for alcohol and gambling.
"The religious people bother us all the time," said Jassim, who was holding a tall can of Turkish beer called Venus and clicking his amber prayer beads. "But so what? There is enough to worry about in this country. We should be able to have a good time."
The racetrack is an oasis—one of the few public places in town where secular-minded Iraqis can forget about the chaos around them and just play the ponies.
It wasn't always that way. During Saddam Hussein's reign, the sport, like everything else, got caught up in politics and violence.
Atallah Shalal, a jockey wearing white satin and the number "1" Monday, recalled a race in 1988 when a horse owned by Saddam's son Qusai lost. The next week, Qusai Hussein's security force came to the club and rounded up about 12 jockeys, including Shalal. After blindfolding the jockeys, the thugs put them in a vehicle headed about four hours south to the town of Amarah.
There, in a dank prison, the jockeys, still blindfolded, were stood up in a room and beaten with rods for about an hour before being thrown into cells, where they sat for 15 days.
"Riding horses is a lot more comfortable now with Saddam gone," Shalal said.
The track was originally in Baghdad's Mansur neighborhood, closer to downtown, but it was displaced in 1994 when Saddam, in a ploy for regional support, decided to build the world's biggest mosque, which is still under construction, at the Baghdad Equestrian Club's former location.
"They should have kept it a racetrack," said Walid Rustem, one of the deans of race jockeys in Baghdad.
Saddam outlawed gambling at the track the next year, saying Islam forbade it. With the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq in place, and gambling revenue cut substantially—there continued to be some on the side—the track faltered.
In 1999, horses were dying for lack of money and medicine, and Saddam declared that betting at the race track was not, in fact, gambling, but just a lottery with horses. The betting windows reopened. Abdullah Aziz Ali, the head of the track's board of directors, suspected that Saddam's pride was hurt by the idea of Iraq's horses—once famed for their Arabian bloodlines—languishing.
"But he never gave any reason," Ali said. "He didn't have to."
After the war ended last year, Ali returned to the track and found that the television sets, furniture and even windows had been looted.
The grounds today are still littered with trash, and Ali is worried about extremist Muslim fighters launching an attack. Guards with AK-47s are everywhere, and cars are searched for bombs.
Amid it all, middle-class men in suit jackets with binoculars on their arms walk past taxi drivers taking an hour off in the middle of the day. Crowds of men stand on benches outside, watching the races. TV monitors broadcast the races in a spare clubhouse, where chickpea soup is for sale.
Duraid Satar, a Baghdad grocer, watched as the horse he'd bet on—ridden by a jockey in a red jersey—came pounding down the dirt, bumping into another chestnut brown thoroughbred all the way to the wire.
When he saw the red jersey come across the line first, Satar jumped up and down, screaming, "Go, my hero, go!" He pushed his way through the crowded room, jumped over a wall and then a rail, and threw a handful of Iraqi dinar at the jockey before grabbing him off his horse and kissing him.
He'd won 200,000 dinar, about $150.
"We don't have anything else but this," Satar said. "I hope they never take it away from us."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+HORSERACES