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It wasn't exactly the Kentucky Derby, but legal Israeli horse racing burst out of the gate in Afula yesterday, drawing 10,000 excited spectators to the new Gilboa region Hippodrome.
All the action wasn't necessarily only on the track, however, with police detaining nine people suspected of gambling as the races got under way. Police said that the nine were under investigation, with no decision yet on whether they would be indicted.
While it's too early to tell how popular the sport will ultimately prove with spectators in the long term, if organizers of the one-day event get permission to hold more events the Gilboa region plans to add 3,500 jobs as a result of the completion of the event center, an important shot in the arm to the local economy.
Arrests of gamblers notwithstanding, Israel's first-ever sanctioned horse race was more of a county fair then an intense sporting event. Anyone who has attended a horse race around the world is familiar with the overzealous bettors studying scouting magazines and subsequently betting the farm on their pony to place. In countries where gambling is legal at such events, the gamblers make up the majority of the crowd and raise a ruckus as the horses race to the finish line.
However, only a small fraction of the population showed any real emotion while watching Wednesday's races. For the most part, those on hand had gathered for a celebration, a spectacle or a family picnic. Unlike the cheering throngs who attend Maccabi Tel Aviv games, for example, the atmosphere was very relaxed with many fans just happy to see something different and enjoy the commentating of legendary football announcer Zoer Balul.
Others enjoyed more personal triumphs. Roget Chatav from Ashkelon, co-owner of a winning horse from Germany, proudly held up his trophy and proclaimed: "We are trying to do something like this in Ashkelon and we're very close."
Indeed, the Gilboa Hippodrome could set a major precedent in Israel and buttress the popularity of horse racing as a sport and horse riding as a leisure activity and industry.
But there is plenty of work to be done. Despite the PR efforts to trumpet its opening, the Afula Hippodrome has a general feel of makeshift impermanence. Mostly made up of fences and tents, the Hippodrome is a good start, but must be vastly improved to draw any regular international competitions or tourism.
Spanning a large field made up mostly of dirt, it includes a partially covered grassy area with ample seating space. Horses were showcased in an enclosed area and walked through a pathway to the main track when it was their time to race. In between the 10 races were different events, including one featuring a daring woman rider who performed a series of acrobatic moves, including riding with no hands and hanging off the side of her mount.
While that wowed some of the audience, not everyone who came to the Hippodrome Wednesday was as excited.
Hakol Chai, a Tel Aviv-based human rights group, protested outside the gates by whistling, chanting and holding up signs, including one saying: "Horse racing? What next?"
Hakol Chai spokeswoman Tali Lavie called the protest successful. "Lots of people stopped to talk to us today and it's amazing how many people are unaware of the cruelties towards the horses in these events. One man stopped and gave us his four tickets and said: 'I am not going in,'" Lavie boasted.
At one point in the day, five protesters not officially affiliated with Hakol Chai passed through the gates and ran on to the track. They were immediately detained and taken to a jail nearby.
Hakol Chai began their protest against the proposed Hippodrome in August of 2004 when it became evident that the track was going to be built. They claim that on October 17, the High Court of Justice will hear their petition to stop the continuation of horse racing at the site, with a decision expected in December.
Among those attending the event was Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who praised regional council head Danny Atar's initiative to boost tourism and industry in the region. Peretz also noted the ethnic diversity of the crowd, adding that "horse racing can unite Jews and Arabs in Israel."
Rebecca Anna Stoil also contributed to this report.