Off and running

Can the Gilboa hippodrome transform the North by creating leverage for employment, tourism, agriculture, education and economic growth?

horse feature 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
horse feature 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After the second Lebanon war, various plans for developing the North made the headlines. One of the interesting plans for developing the region, business and real estate, is opening the Israel Hippodrome in the Gilboa area, which was established with a $15 million investment. Developers of the complex, which stretches over 400 dunams, promise that it will create 3,500 new jobs in the North, will bring Israel into one of the richest sports industries in the world, and will develop tremendous sports and tourism sites. Standing behind the initiative are three groups, which decided to join hands and build the largest hippodrome in the State of Israel: the Crystal Group, which holds a 37 percent share; Moshav Nir Yaffe, which includes about 80 families and has a 26% share; and the Doral Group, owned by Dori Davidovich and Alon Cassal, which holds a 37% stake, has real estate investments in Eastern Europe, and provides consulting services and professional expertise to real-estate developers. "The first idea was to build a serious hippodrome in Israel that would be an attraction for all horse enthusiasts, and would create an exceptional tourism experience in the North," Davidovich says. "Beyond my affection for horses, this is an incredible project that is expected to inject the horse racing culture into Israel, and will constitute a platform for bringing together a range of new cultural niches in the area, such as bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants and cafes, guest houses, a commercial center and, of course, riding schools and stables for raising and training horses." The Doral Group came to the area after a protracted search in the region. What drew the developers' attention in Moshav Nir Yaffe is the convenient location near Ta'anachim Junction (Highway 6) and the area's comfortable climate, which is appropriate for horse racing. In addition, the moshav owns a section of land that suited a hippodrome from the standpoint of its being earmarked for sports. Avner Hayat, chairman of Moshav Nir Yaffe's executive, expressed great enthusiasm for the subject. At that stage the developers were joined by Crystal Investment Group, headed by Ronen Crystal (37%), and with the help of Danny Atar, head of the Gilboa Regional Council, who is considered to be the driving force behind the hippodrome, the bulldozers were given the green light. The first phase of building the hippodrome has already begun. Today it is possible to enjoy a 1,400-meter professional racetrack at the hippodrome, an earthen bleacher and grassy areas for the visitors' enjoyment. In the future, when the project's plan receives final approval from the local planning and construction committee, it will be possible to build a complex with a 1,600-meter racetrack built to international standards, and bleachers with 5,000 seats for the crowd. In addition, the developers are planning to build a 10,000 sq.m. commercial center that will include cafes, restaurants, museums (Horse World) and shops. The Gilboa hippodrome is considered a key project creating leverage for employment, tourism, agriculture, education, and economic growth in the Galilee, Gilboa and Valley region. According to the developers' forecasts, the North is expected to get thousands of new jobs in maintaining the hippodrome facility, operating the complex's commercial and entertainment areas, tourist attractions in the region, and developing a horse farm and agricultural farms in the area. "We foresee the creation of 3,500 jobs over the next five years just in industries supporting horses," Davidovich says. "I'm talking about a farm for raising horses, research in the field of raising horses, improving the breed, developing and growing improved food for horses, and integrating in these spheres into the international industry as well. If we add to that Israel's mild weather, Israel's know-how and reputation in the agricultural field, and improving the stock, it seems to me that we have potential here for revolutionizing the North." Assuming that the hippodrome's activity reaches a level of just two race days a week, at least about 500 horses a month are expected to race at the hippodrome (a racehorse competes just once a month). Since several horses must be raised in order to train a single racehorse, the developers assess that just in the area alone horse farms will be established to raise more than 1,500 horses, and that they will employ more than 3,000 workers. "Our vision is to develop the horse industry and enable export of the horses to the international horse industry," Davidovich says. "In addition, development of the complex is expected to lead to a dramatic boost in the area's country lodging industry. The warm weather, the Megiddo airport for handling executive planes and small aircraft, will make it possible to have races attended by a crowd from around the world, and for a direct increase in employment of 150 additional people, such as customs officials and border control police." The hippodrome plan has passed the phase of being deposited with the district planning and building committee, and survived the objections phase. The developers currently anticipate that the plan will be granted final approval. On the ground, the basis for the hippodrome can already be seen, alongside which the developers plan to build (after the final authorizations are granted) tourism sites, a school within the regional educational system to teach all of the professions associated with the sport of riding, and a school for training jockeys, which will prepare the next generation of jockeys in Israel. Beyond that, the hippodrome is expected to hold activities for the entire family every day of the week (not just on race days), and to create partnerships with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the School of Veterinary Medicine in order to establish a veterinary hospital. In the future, there are also plans to build a 120-room hostel that will serve horse owners, jockeys and trainers, both during and between competitions. Currently, betting is not permitted on the hippodrome grounds. "Our business thinking regarding the project was not based on the expectation of making a profit from betting alone," says Alon Cassal, owner of the Israel hippodrome. "Operating the hippodrome is based on seat tickets, sponsorships, television broadcasts, food stands, and further revenues that will be received in the wake of development and meeting the plan's strategic objectives, as they were spelled out to the committee. For that reason, I do not see the industry being dependent on wagering on the races, and that's a good thing." On April 5, during the intermediate days of Passover, a horse race happening will be held with the participation of professional jockeys from abroad, who will demonstrate their skills on the track. According to assessments, 20,000 spectators will attend the event. Among the invitees are Minister for Development of the Negev and Galilee Shimon Peres, Science, Culture and Sports Minister Raleb Majadele, Knesset members, horse personalities and enthusiasts from Jordan, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. The races will be called by well-known British race announcer Paul Alster, who decided to join the developers as a hippodrome affairs consultant, and to promote the horse racing culture in Israel. The event will also include activities for the entire family, such as races, jousting, steeplechase, an arts and crafts area, food and entertainment sections, matzo baking, a petting zoo and pony rides.