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Horseracing in Zimbabwe Feeling Economic Pinch

  • VOA Staff

Preakness Horse Racing

Zimbabwe’s worsening economic crisis is threatening the closure of one of the country’s hardiest of colonial era legacies - horse racing – as revenues dwindle drastically, the AFP has reported.

Gradually since 2000, owners, breeders and gamblers have pulled out of the game, resulting in a drop of racehorses stabled in the country from nearly 500 five years ago to just 120 today.

Only four full-time trainers, all of them white, remain in business.

Now, the country's only track – Borrowdale Racecourse - is threatened with closure.

Leading trainer Bridget Stidolph told AFP that she’s worried about the future of horse racing in Zimbabwe.

"We do fear for the long-term survival of the sport," said Stidolph. “We often ask ourselves how we keep going, but we want to continue for as long as we can. Racing is popular in Zimbabwe. There is just no money for people to spend."

HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT

Zimbabweans' love of a wager kept the sport alive, but now with the serious cash shortage and high unemployment of an estimated 90%, maintaining the sport has become increasingly unsustainable.

But racecourse chief executive officer Clever Mushangwe shares a different, more optimistic view.

"We definitely will survive, I am certain that we can overcome the current difficulties."

Mushangwe is counting on the government to recognize the racecourse as more than a sport, but a source of employment, and offer support.

“We employ in excess of 1,500 people in the industry,” Mushangwe explained of the staff, ranging from stable grooms to betting cashiers.

Mushangwe further said the racecourse is a place of relaxation for many of the country’s majority black citizens, who’ve grown to love the once white-only sport.

"Horse racing came here with colonisation, but actually it grew from strength to strength as Zimbabweans came to love it," Mushangwe said. “It is an important part of life. People love the mixture of a social event where they see friends, they can enjoy the horses and they have a flutter (small bet).”

CASTLE TANKARD

No official gambling figures are available, though attendance for the flagship Castle Tankard race earlier this month was reportedly only a few thousand people compared with crowds regularly in excess of 20,000 several years ago.

Contributing to the sport’s popularity is Harare-based driver, Cuthbert Mangoma, who despite the hard times, continued to try his luck with the races.

“Zimbabweans love racing and having a bet, so it is sad that many can't enjoy their entertainment," said Mangoma, who despite the hard times, lost $40 betting during "a day when I had no luck,"

Harare resident Keddy Masango, 30, who is unemployed, said he’s stopped betting but continues to attend races, like the Castle Tankard race, for which he was lucky to get a free ticket.

"I used to have a bet. I can't gamble without money,” explained Masango. “Now, I just come here for the day to look."

The crowd at the racing is mostly male, with some taking advantage of cheap beer supplied by the sponsors, Delta Beverages.

Older punters study race form in tattered newspapers, while clerks use chalk to write up betting odds on blackboards.

GAMBLING

Gambling is still a cash transaction in Zimbabwe, but banknotes are scarce after hyperinflation 10 years ago forced the national currency to be abandoned in favour of the US dollar.

Efforts by the racecourse to evade the cash shortage by installing card swipe machines at betting booths have done little to revive turnover.

For many in Zimbabwe, horse racing seems far removed from the everyday reality of long queues outside banks as people wait several hours to make a withdrawal often limited to just $50 a day.

This year, race promoters tried to attract more punters as well as families by also organizing a fashion show, a children's water funfair and an evening pop concert.

COMPLEMENTARY DRINKS

In a small VIP enclosure on the lawn close to the finishing post, about 100 corporate guests wearing sharp suits or smart dresses, high heels and hats sipped complimentary drinks after lunch.

"I come here 90 percent for the social scene and 10 percent for the horses," said Tsungie Manweza, 33, a corporate affairs manager wearing a stylish pink headpiece with a net veil.

"I meet people, and there is the adrenaline of the race. It is an exciting day, but the racing culture is fading away in Zimbabwe."

Borrowdale racecourse, opened in 1957, was famed for its flat, high-quality grass track, but today maintenance is patchy, and the large grandstand and betting halls have become increasingly worn down.

Since 2001 it has been the only racing venue in Zimbabwe after the course in Bulawayo, the country's second city, closed as the economy went into a tailspin.

A major rescue plan is under way to raise funds by selling off plots of land surrounding the racecourse, with Chinese and other foreign companies reportedly interested in building hotels and residential complexes.

The $50,000 Castle Tankard race, which was won by South African jockey Evert Pheiffer on the seven-to-two shot Comanche Brave, has been run every year since 1960.

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