Skip to main content
Publish date:

The Wagers Of War

Near the center of the battered city of Beirut, along a
five-furlong oval surrounded by a stone wall and high-rises
blackened by the guns of war, the scene comes alive every
Sunday--the Arabian horses pounding hard around the dirt course,
their goggled riders screaming and flashing their whips, and the
bettors smoking water pipes in the clubhouse or lining the
outside fence and lustily cheering them home.

Of all the tracks and race meets in the world--from Hong Kong to
Belmont Park, from Epsom to Longchamp--none offers a venue as
unlikely as Beirut. In fact, in no other gambling hall on Earth
does the real world meet the sporting life to more jarring
effect than it does on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
The walls of the grandstand are pocked with bullet holes from a
15-year civil war, fought between the country's Christians and a
coalition of its Muslims and the PLO, that began in 1975 and
included a 1982 invasion by Israel aimed at driving out the
Palestinian guerrillas. The paddock resembles the grounds of a
military prison. Everywhere are grim-faced soldiers, dressed in
battle fatigues, toting M-16 rifles.

The Palais des Paix, or Palace of Peace, was cut out of a pine
forest in 1915, and over the next 60 years it served as a
sanctuary and sandbox for the region's royalty. The Shah of Iran
played there, as did the ruling families of Saudia Arabia and
Jordan. All that ended when civil war broke out. The track
happened to straddle the north-south Green Line that divides the
city into the Muslim (West Beirut) and Christian (East Beirut)
sectors, so it lay smack in the middle of the hottest cross
fire. Snipers dueled from the windows and rooftops of the nearby
buildings. The track was shut down, reopened and shut down again
several times. In December 1979, two months after the end of a
hundred days of fighting, the track opened its gates and a 12-1
shot named Simsam, Arabic for "sword," won the $10,000 Christmas
Prize with a gunshot wound on his left hind leg.

Nothing left it more unalterably scarred than the war that
followed the Israeli invasion in June 1982. That month, after
peering through binoculars at guerrilla positions hidden behind
the 100-year-old forest, Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon ordered the
trees destroyed. A barrage of shells and firebombs torched the
woods, exposing the track and turning it into a war zone in
which dozens of horses perished. With the course caught in the
shelling, track officials pleaded with the U.S. special envoy,
Philip Habib, to do something to save the 350 horses trapped
inside. At Habib's request, Sharon and the PLO's Yasser Arafat
agreed to a five-hour cease-fire on July 8. That day grooms
wearing white armbands swept into the track and led the horses
out to waiting trucks that whisked them to farms in eastern

Nothing in Beirut has had more lives than the track. It reopened
in September 1984, after Israel's withdrawal, but closed five
months later, after a Muslim militia commander--in a rage over
the track's refusal to pay him protection money--took to the
balcony of a high-rise and opened fire over the grandstand. The
gates stayed closed until the civil war ended in 1990. Since
then the track has remained open. Every Sunday the Muslims
mingle with the Christians in a sport in which the only question
that divides them is this: Who do ya like? It beats war.

--William Nack

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SEAMUS MURPHY/SABA At Beiruit's ironically named Palace of Peace racetrack, Arabians pound the dirt in the shadow of high-rises scarred by gunfire, evidence that the track has frequently been buffeted by the winds of war. [Jockeys racing horses on track]

THREE B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SEAMUS MURPHY/SABA Muslims and Christians find common ground at the track, where puffing on a water pipe (left), placing a bet and holding a ticket on a winner like Samir (below, with jockey Nasmat Mihad) are the shared pleasures. [Man with water pipe looking through binoculars; men placing bets; Nasmat Mihad and horse Samir]

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SEAMUS MURPHY/SABA Dish-faced Arabians parade like carousel ponies past a pair of armed soldiers, who seem to be just another part of the racetrack scenery.