Bringing horse racing to Israelis

Paul Alster gives up very English lifestyle to promote the sport in Israel.

horse racing 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
horse racing 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Arabian horses, Bedouin jockeys, and Jewish trainers - a real microcosm of Israel's community has teamed up with the Israeli Jockey Club (IJC) over the last nine years to create what may soon be thought of as an integral part of the Israeli experience. Every two to three weeks during the summer and winter sessions, men and women, religious and secular, gather at Pardess Hanna racecourse in northern Israel for a day at the races. Israeli horse racing is by no means a new phenomenon in itself, but since it's inception in 1999 the IJC has been working to present it as an accessible entertainment experience for every corner of Israeli society, while simultaneously laying the foundations for an industry with the potential to benefit the national economy. "Racing could help to forge closer ties between all the communities in Israel," Paul Alster, director of media and communications for IJC, told The Jerusalem Post. "Horse racing can bring jobs to areas that don't have a lot of [opportunity] - the Negev and Galilee… small rural communities. People with a basic knowledge and interest in horses can be taught, given the right training opportunities, to care for them to a high standard." It is just that kind of entrepreneurial thinking that has carried Alster through his widespread experiences in horse racing. He began his career as a radio commentator at the age of 17 in his hometown of Leeds, Yorkshire, in the north of England, a path he forewent law school to follow. Over the following years Alster worked as a race caller, a television commentator, and a journalist for races all over the UK. "Then something happened," he recalled. "I came to visit my sister in Israel [in 1993]. Up until that point nobody had realized I was Jewish." Two weeks later, he said, "I was told my contract [with the Racecourse Association (RCA) in England] was being cancelled." Alster wondered whether his Jewish background had cost him his job. "One of the committee suggested to me that with my 'background' I would be better suited to a career in bookmaking - a far from subtle swipe at the high percentage of Jews involved in the betting industry. I was devastated," he said. However Alster managed to stay in the industry. "The good thing about racing is that there were a lot of people that were absolutely disgusted with what happened to me so I was offered an opportunity to work at The Racing Post [newspaper]." Four years after he left the RCA, Alster made aliyah for a two-year period before returning permanently to Israel last summer. Rather than allowing a setback at a critical junction in his career deter his ambition, Alster decided to bring the experience he gained in England first as a commentator, and then later as a journalist and betting analyst, to Israel. "There is a great climate, people that enjoy an exciting family day out and are always looking for new things to experience," he said of Israeli society. "You have a truly business minded public here, who will quickly see the benefit of being involved with horse racing." The most evident obstacle in the way of Israel's burgeoning horse racing industry is the legalization of betting on horses. Though legislation was passed in 2005 that gave the Israel Sports Betting Board a license for horse racing, they have yet to use it. "It's all down to politics," Alster said, explaining that the Sports Betting Board must decide on a form of betting before the gambling can begin. "I firmly believe it has to be a state run betting system like they have in France, Australia, South Africa and many other countries worldwide. "If you were to give the license to a private firm the profits would go directly to their shareholders, but with state-run betting they have a duty to give a certain percentage of the profits back into the industry to fund development of the sport from the grass roots and build for the future." "Racing could help to forge closer ties between all the communities in Israel," Alster emphasized. But one might wonder how well racial harmony and money will mix when the betting begins. "At the moment the situation exists where we have Jewish jockeys and Arab jockeys, and [even though] the IJC makes it very clear that we support the ban on illegal betting, we suspect that it takes place, but it doesn't cause any obvious tension," asserted Alster. "As a result of the very limited opportunities for betting in Israel there is a massive illegal market for betting of all kinds so it makes absolute sense to legalize betting on horse racing, implement well thought out legislation and tax the betting, and take the money out of the hands of people who are betting illegally," he commented. "The moment that the legal betting is put in place, there will be no place for illegal betting because the legal betting companies will offer better odds than the black marketeer. "It will take the business away from them, just as it did in Britain in 1963 when they legalized off-course betting on horse racing." The action next takes place at Pardess Hanna on Friday, June 20.