Bill Shoemaker was an American jockey, who was most famous for holding the record for most races one by an individual for 29 years. His horse alone, made 123 million dollars over his career. His earnings are disclosed. He lived a luxurious life because of his success in the sport. For this reason we will forever remain a legend in the Equestrian world. Until today, bill remains one of the most famous athletes in the Equestrian world, all starting from his career as a jockey.
To be a jockey requires a brave and understanding heart; you most be brave enough to endure the risks of the race, and be understanding enough to change your style based off of your horse. The job is not one that is easy, nor reliable, which is why, in Europe, those who take it up become so famous. Jordan is a different story; the jockey is equal to the groomer, just another chess piece in a dangerous game some powerful men have been playing for too long now.
“It is dangerous, it really is! I mean, you see around you we have rules and schedules. But they don’t go by that, they do whatever they want. It is not a nice business at all.” – Jordanian Equestrian Sports Specialist/Anonymous
Jordan has a rich Equestrian Culture. Every weekend you’ll find an event taking place at some location in the greater amman area. Some may be a little less luxurious than usual, but all of them are controlled by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI). Competitions always include the same set of judges, and the clubs that host them are inspected a few days before for proper sizes, grounding, and safety of the fence linings. Horses are checked for shots and steroids the night before. The entire competition is heavily regulated, to ensure that the tournaments are as safe as possible. Beauty competitions are also monitored carefully by the FEI, and winning horses are sent around the world to compete internationally. People invest tens of thousands of dollars into horses for both business and leisure, and some prominent riders even own private stables. Prize money can reach up to 1000 JD in some national competitions, and a lot of people count on the business of Equestrian Sports as a primary form of income; from the groomers in the stables to the riders and owners themselves. If it is controlled by the FEI, and is under their domain of power, then you can expect it to be professional and held to luxurious standards. Anything outside of said domain will be the complete opposite; and horse-racing falls in that category.
Horse-racing is known as a bit of a conundrum for the FEI, mostly because it is barely considered a sport. Most members of the Equestrian community see it as a gambling industry that doesn’t involve as much skill as other sports, causing it to lack an appearance in the Olympics, as well as a supranational system to keep it in check across the globe. The sport that is usually known as prestigious and perhaps even prodigal, for its luxurious events in Europe, has appeared to become one of the most crooked stage in the rest of the world, in terms of animal and rider welfare.
The closest thing horse racing has to the FEI is the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities (IFHA), recognized as the most legitimate institution. Similar to the FEI, the federation has regulated competitions fairly well whatever they can control, monitoring the horse food, vaccines, blood levels, training facilities, and mental stability. Organizations such as the Professional Jockey Association and British Horse-racing Authority also take control of some in game needs, such as the number of whips a jockey can give, the saddles and reins types, and the overall danger of the jockey’s technique. All groups will check the venue before hosting any competition to make sure the length and width is right, boarder-linings are safe, and the race itself goes smoothly. The IFHA isn’t perfect, but it does its job fairly well where it can.
Horse-racing becomes and issue when the IFHA can’t control it, and the FEI refuses to. IHFA is limited mostly to European and American races, putting fruitless efforts into expanding their range of control. An example of such lacking efforts is Jordan; where horse-racing has falling so far out of the spectrum of the IFHA and FEI’s control, and into the hands of locals of highly unregulated sectors. Stiff flooring, tight turns, inconsistent levelling, and lack of borders are all things that mark the track. This, without considering the massive amount of steroid usage and money laundering in the business. This fancy form of gambling transitions into levels near dog-fighting and fox-hunting, in terms of animal abuse.
On September 12th, I had a meeting via phone-call with an anonymous insider within the business of Equestrian Sports in the middle east. Said person shall be referred to as Sam from this moment forth. Sam has been involved in many different aspects of the industry, including some that have gotten him close to the illegal horse races in Madaba through both the positions of trying to systematically control it and selling to some members. Per Sam, Abdul-Naim Abu-Windi is the mastermind behind the project. Although, he can barely be called such. His job does not carry a high magnitude of responsibility, since most people involved in it are upper-class business men, or politicians, who use it as a hobby on the side of their actual source of income. Although, the people who work for them depend on the job for their lives, including jockeys, who are seen to be just as professional as the groomers and guards. Competitions are all very spontaneous, organized by a few of the owners a few days before, whenever they feel like being entertained. Then on the next Friday they will all meet in one of the tracks, where you might often find a few jockeys fly off the horse and get severely injured, as well as visibly unhealthy horses being forced to race. Fight may even start, and will often end with a few injuries. In fact, fights are so bad that the races are called off during Ramadan, as they fear the anger that comes from fasting will cause someone to take a fight a step to far.
The largest issue with the horse racing industry is a lack of coverage by the FEI, which refuses to recognize it as a sport. Had they taken control over it, like they do with Horse jumping, the races would be much safer. The reason Horse jumping is so much more prestigious is because the Etihad (FEI in Jordan) have a set of policies that the clubs should fill out to host a tournament, and if they don’t the Etihad don’t come judge, and therefore nobody comes because the prize money ends up being smaller, and the tournemant has the reputation of being unsafe. The Etihad also checks each horse for shots in the last 6 months, steroids, and current state of health. If any of these tests are failed, the horse isn’t allowed to race, even after having paid. The control goes as far to the track itself, where if the horse refuses to jump twice, you are pulled out. Even if you use your whip excessively (more than twice), you can be suspended for 6 months from riding, even for pleasure, and are fined nearly 150 JDs. Etihad has taken control of the entire business, and everyone trusts them; so why don’t they try and control the mess that is Horse-racing.
In 2009 the Etihad funded an underground study on the benefits of systematically controlling horseracing. The research went as far as to send some representatives to Istanbul, one of which I have spoken to. The research concluded that the Jordanian GDP could drastically rise if the business is controlled. This option is still unrealistic, as it would require institutionalized gambling in a predominantly muslim country. Although, benefits are not just financial, as the business will easily break even, but for the same reason many people support legalizing prostitution or certain drugs. By controlling the industry through a larger body, like the IFHA, we can begin taxing clubs and racers so that the country may benefit, and will be saving the lives of many horses and humans. Sources have told me that the industry is hazardous to all members taking part, including the animal, and this can be confirmed to be accurate. This idea is not even foreign to Jordanians, as sources have informed me that Horse-racing used to be near the standards of horse-jumping today in Jordan during the 70’s and 80’s, but it was the 90’s and 00’s that saw the major drop off into its current state. Even today Saudi Arabia has a fairly strong industry for races, although remaining fairly shady and unknown.
I chose to visit one of these races. The closest event to us was actually right behind kings. in fact, you can see our clock-tower when looking at the south-eastern wing of the track. We were told that there is a club nearby named “Nadi Jbeil”, but instead were met with a larger dirt field. I was told is used for planting grains in the winter, but during spring becomes the track. It was a large plain that was marked by an oval shaped track. The track is only separated from the rest of the land around by the slight differences in thickness of the dirt. The grounding is uneven, mixed with rocks, without boarders, and has sharp turns and bad footing for the horses. People from all over the area gather around, sitting on the hood of their car, parking exactly outside the track, or sometimes in the area in the center. They bring their own food, drinks, and shisha from their homes. You may think this is them being cheap and refusing to pay prices to the club, but it is because the club is not a club, and instead just the track and nothing else around it (not even fencing to mark their land). There are no places to sit, no rooms for horses, no actual built areas, as everything is portable. The horse are brought on pickups, rather than trailers, and are visibly skinny and heavily built. Both the jockeys and there horses are dressed in bright colors and interesting outfits. The tac for horses are very lacking, with some jockeys choosing not to use saddles. One horse’s martin gal, a piece attached to the pit of a horse in order to get more contact and control, was attached to the throat of the horse instead of the chest, possibly harming the horses wind-pipe. There were two judge groups; one that stood by the starting line and initiated the opening of the doors, and one that stood by the finishing line to determine who came first in the case of a close race. Overall, it was extremely low budget and dangerous for everyone involved. Horses were hurting their joints on turns and if anything goes wrong, the grounding can kill a horse, jockey, or audience member.
Nonetheless, there is a reason the races are prominent in the area. Its easy to find the appeal of the event. In an area with very low sources of entertainment, it provides somewhere to take your family on the weekends, and escape from the everyday life. I joined a family for a cup of tea, and conversed about the techniques of different riders. Within a few minutes I found myself, coming from a background of show-jumping events, absorbed by the entire experience. As an audience member I am not aware of all the dangers, as I most probably don’t know much about horses. Frankly, to many, even if I did know, why should I care? As long as the show is fun to watch I am happy to be here. There is little incentive for me to boycott the competition for its many dangers.
The fact of the matter is, this industry is big for something with such little organization. Its success seems to be coming from the love of its members for it. The community all gathers to watch races, and they don’t even need to pay a cent. Most end up getting really immersed into the games, so they buy the papers and schedules available so that they understand everything better. The industry also provides jobs to many; the groomers, jockeys, and judges all rely on the business as a main source of income. The industry is too big to just wipe out with higher surveillance, and is impossible in the drug-filled section of the country we are in. Closing down the industry is impractical, but controlling it is possible. The Etihad has looked at it in the past, and with the industry growing stronger by the day, we might see a much more regulated horse-racing industry in Jordan.