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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.

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For The Kenya Derby, there was something close to $13,000 up for the taking, thanks to a sponsor deal with Spur Steak Ranches, a restaurant chain with outlets in Kenya and nine other African countries.

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“We’d been seeing a lot of the crowds disappearing, a lot of the prize money disappearing, and we just felt that we could put as much as we could into it and try to get some of them back,” said Sidney Armstrong, the 25-year-old managing director of the Spur restaurant in Nairobi.

“What do we get out of it? Not much really, but my family has a long connection to horse racing here, and I felt it needed to be shaken up a bit.”

On the side, Armstrong is advising the Jockey Club on digital advertising, brand building and multi-media marketing. He is not short of ideas.

He has approached investors in Dubai, home to the world’s highest-earning horse race (the $26.25 million Dubai World Cup), and others in South Africa, trying to put Nairobi’s racetrack back on the international circuit.

He is talking to major Kenyan firms about sponsoring future events. He has even held meetings with two universities and says he’s confident he has persuaded their student bodies to set up multimember syndicates to buy racehorses.

“These young guys are going to be around a lot longer than most of the people in the sport now,” Armstrong says. “Without interest from people like them, horse racing here is going to just slowly die out on its own.”

Looking at the grandstand at start of the Derby, there is hope. It was near full, and in Joe Muya’s “cosmopolitan mix up” kind of way.

Next door, in the Silver Ring, kids ricocheted off the rubbery walls of the bouncy castle. Old men in faded baseball caps studied the race card then queued to place their half dollar minimum bets. Families sat on the grass, sipping fizzy sodas.

Joseph Chibole, 24, moved to Nairobi from western Kenya last year, and first visited the race course in November. Since then, he’s been six times, and for Derby Day he brought his neighbor, Mercy Karimi and her four-year-old daughter Vanessa, for their first visit.

“After all week working, this is a nice thing to do on a Sunday,” said Chibole, who works for an international wine importation firm in the city. “When I first heard about it, I didn’t think Africans would be riding the horses, it was great to see them doing so.

“There are some problems, the authorities need to reduce the costs to enter the VIP section, make it $2 or let children go in free, that will bring more people. But really it is good, sometimes in the school holidays, you will find so many people here.

“When I tell my work colleagues on Monday morning that I’ve come here on a Sunday, there are many people who listen to me then they come here and they enjoy so much. You know, this is a thing which can increase in popularity, I’m sure of it.”

Related: See Brendan Bannon’s full slideshow of images of Kenya’s horseracing here.

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