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.
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Then there are the trainers. Among the new faces regularly at Ngong’s trackside is Nuno Nur, 33, one of the five young Kenyan trainers with horses in the Derby.Skip to next paragraph
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The son of a security worker on a white-owned farm north of Nairobi, he grew up around horses. Following his elder brother, and followed by his younger one, he started out show jumping, then switched to thoroughbred racing because “this is where the money is”.
Today, he’s training 20 horses whose owners reflect the country’s changing elite: white Kenyans, Asian tycoons, African businesspeople, syndicates of middle-class Kenyans with their feet on the first rung of the ladder of equine-ownership.
“Starting out on your own as a trainer is not easy,” Nur said, during an early morning training session in the days before the Derby. “There are established players who have long relationships with the clients, the owners, the jockeys. But that’s the same in any business, anywhere in the world. What’s also the same is work hard, slowly you will begin to succeed.”
It’s not enough to bring new trainers and owners into the sport, however. It’s prize money that will keep them investing, and for years purses have been free-falling as big-cash sponsors and serious gamblers dried up.
Out at the Silver Ring, the free-entry field for poorer Kenyans who can’t afford the $3 pass to the grandstand, Joseph Ndongo, who’s been coming to Ngong Racecourse since he was a child, says now it is “collapsing”.
“I don’t know what happened, in the 1970s it was full of people,” he said, thumbing a sheaf of half-dollar betting slips.
“There’s no money. I come because I love this Club, because my heart is in it, because it is my hobby and maybe some days I will place my bet and win and then go home and eat meat that night.
“But gambling is a kind of business, and business is bad. If the higher members up there don’t wake up quickly, the Club is dying.”
Back in the VIP area one recent Sunday, at the bar in the Owners Breeders and Trainers Society clubhouse, gin-loosened tongues all pointed the blame for the flat-lining of horse-racing in the same direction.
“The Jockey Club. It’s run by amateurs, total mismanagement,” said one of the cast propping up the bar. There was talk of bad investments, of poorly-executed land sales, of Club bank accounts languishing in the red for years. Of an older generation stuck in the past yearning for a different era whose sun has already forever set.
John Sercombe, a member of the Jockey Club’s board of directors, acknowledged that there was a grave need to revamp things, to “bring new blood into the sport so it does not die off with us old-timers.”
And in the Club’s defense, a corner has been turned. After a decade struggling for sponsors, the Jockey Club’s efforts are bringing in some decent prize cash again.