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.

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

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

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.

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.

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”.

After stints at college and then racing in Britain, Germany and New Zealand, he always had eyes on home.

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.

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.

“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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