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A colonial pastime struggles to survive in Nairobi

Horse racing, a favorite pastime of Kenya's white elite in the colonial era, is struggling to make a comeback in post-colonial Nairobi.

By Correspondent / April 5, 2011

Jockey J. Lokorian riding Kimberly on Derby Day at Ngong Racecourse.

Brendan Bannon

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Jamhuri, Nairobi, Kenya

This post is part of the Daily Dispatch project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

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Henry Muya is angry. A year of dawn training runs, a year in the saddle slowly coaxing the best from his horse, a year of preparing for this race on this day, all for nothing.

Three false starts to the biggest event in Nairobi’s racing calendar, The Kenya Derby spooked Ngobi, his horse. He was among the last out of the stalls, failed to pick up position on the back straight, and flew over the line 2,400-meter later, clumped up in the pack several slots off the money.

“Inside, I’m gutted, I’m torn apart, all the hard work it takes to come to this,” the 26-year-old jockey said after the race, still in his jodhpurs, sweat still sticking his hair to his frowned forehead.

“So many horses lost their form in that race, those stalls are too old, they let horses break free when the rest of us were kept back. Everyone was hyped, the horses were hyped, we needed to start well.”

The stalls he’s talking about have seen better days. Until recently, many might have said the same about Kenya’s horseracing.

Brought to the country when it was a British colony, and a favored pastime for the former white elite here, the sport had been facing a slow decline from its heyday 30 years ago.

But now things are changing down at the Ngong Racecourse, the last track left in Kenya, set in 310 forest-side acres in the city’s west.

A sweep of new owners, jockeys and trainers, originally from poor Kenyan families, is stepping in to take over as many of the old-guard died or left the country.

“In the past, we Kenyans did not involve ourselves very much in horses because we saw it as a very niche sport only for white people,” said Joe Muya, 52, a director of the Jockey Club of Kenya.

Born on a white-owned cattle ranch where his father was a plumber, Muya is now a well-heeled hotelier who owns 45 horses and runs a successful training stable two hours north of Nairobi. He is Henry’s father.

“I have been raising horses for 20 years, but there was a time we thought racing was going to disappear. For it to survive here in Kenya, it must become truly a cosmopolitan mix-up of all people involved.”

Already, it’s happening. On the race card for the Derby, five of the 14 runners were trained by people with distinctly non-European names. All but two of the jockeys were black.

Among them were Steve Njuguna and Patrick Mungai, father and son, harmlessly ribbing each other before the off: “I’m sure he will panic a bit, he is still a young kid,” said Njuguna. “Me I have raced six Derbys, for me this is normal”.

There was James Muhindi, a rising star, there was Henry Muya and Ibrahim Wachira and Charles Mwangi. Njuguna has been jockeying for close to 20 years. The majority of the rest have been in the sport less than five.

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