Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The sport of kings

The sport of kings
The sport of kings

Many of us may still remember the film version of My Fair Lady (1964) the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913), directed by George Cukor. Music and lyrics by the famous duo Alan Lerner and Frederick Leowe, both stage and movie versions, were unforgettable hits. One memorable scene, and there were many, was the creation of the Ascot races, considered a masterpiece by most filmmakers. In the midst of a techni-colour film, the scene was set in black and white for a more dramatic impact. The concept was as original as it was breathtaking.

The great Cecil Beaton designed the fabulous costumes, in classic black and white for which he won a well-deserved Oscar. As if dancing in slow motion the stunning choreography of the frozen spectators was suddenly interrupted at the start of horse race as they broke out in syllabic chant: 

“Every duke and earl and peer is here, / Everyone who should be here is here!

What a smashing, positively dashing/ Spectacle: the Ascot Opening Day!”

And a spectacle it is. While historic Ascot has fallen to second place as the most “gripping, absolutely ripping” race, the Kentucky Derby in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, USA has advanced to firt as the most “thrilling, absolutely chilling horse-race day”. 

The 114th renewal of the fastest two minutes in sports was held last weekend, with thousands in attendance and as expected, the favourite horse “Justify” proved worthy of his name. Many predict he will go on to win the Triple Crown as only few have done in history.

Competitive racing of horses is one of humankind’s most ancient sports, having its origins among the pre-historic tribes of Central Asia who first domesticated the animal.

Horse-racing is the second most widely attended spectator sport in the US… their native baseball naturally comes first. It is also a major event in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Western Europe, Australia, New-Zealand, South Africa and South America. Many Asian countries are likewise passionate about horse-racing as in India and Japan.

Despite the fact that horses are an integral part of Arab culture, horse race-tracks as we know them, have dwindled, since modern racing is a major venue for gambling. Still they do exist in Bahrain, Morocco, UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Dubai World Cup is among the first five major horse-racing events in the world. While it no longer exists in Egypt, it was not too long ago that it maintained four race-tracks, two in Cairo and two in Alexandria, filled with enthusiastic spectators on weekends.

If the dog is a man’s best friend, the horse has been the most useful. For thousands of years, long before “trains, planes and automobiles”, horses have provided the fastest and surest way to travel. When not ridden, it pulled carts, chariots, carriages, wagons stage-coaches and buggies. Soldiers charged into battle on sturdy war-horses. Other means have been invented for battles and transportation but the horse remains an essential element in our society. It plays many parts. 

One of the most beautiful animals on earth, it is used for recreation, sport, work, exercise and even dances in carnivals, parades, horse-shows and will gladly perform in the circus.

Eager to please its master, it obeys commands and retains an excellent memory. How would they have filmed all those classic Western movies without horses?

There are now more than 150 breeds of horses, but only thoroughbreds are allowed to race.

Thoroughbreds are horses whose ancestry can be traced back to any of three Arabian stallions that were taken to England over 400 years... the Byerly Turk (1679), the Darling Arabian (1700), the Godolphin Barb (1721)… otherwise they cannot be considered thoroughbreds and are not allowed to participate in official horse races.

Known for its speed, the Arab horse remains king, in this the sport of kings. 

In the 12th century, English knights returned from the Crusades with swift Arab horses and ever since Arab stallions were imported and bred to English mares to produce horses with combined speed, stamina and endurance. King James I established a racing centre at Newmarket, England in 1619. It stands to this day. 

British settlers in the New World lost little time in building their own race-track in 1665, calling it Newmarket at Elmont, NY, very near today’s famous Belmont.

Horses are not only the great winners on the race-tracks, but in history, religion and mythology. The holy Prophet Mohamed was carried to heaven from earth on his horse Al-Barak, Xanthus was the horse of Achilles and lest we forget, there was the legendary Trojan horse.

Many consider Secretariat who won the Triple Crown (1973), the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, the greatest horse in American racing history… but winning does not depend on the horse alone. The skillful rider, or jockey in control, must be alert and light, weighing no more than 50kg. The most famous jockey is Willie Shoemaker, winning 8,000 races.

A major appeal of horse-racing, since pre-historic times is wagery… one of the main reasons it has survived and prospered. Your three-wager categories are: win, first place; place… first, second or third; show… first, second or third.

Even if you come home empty-handed, the pleasure of having experienced the thrill of this, the sport of kings is reward enough... you might even hear Eliza Doolittle cheer her horse Dover home, in her own unique jargon.


“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

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