Iraq continues a history of Arabian racing

A statue of King Faisal the First, ridding my grandfather’s horse (Al-Saklawi Al-Adham) who was presented as a gift to the King. This photo was printed on the old Iraqi currency.

Dr. Mohammed Al Nujaifi’s family may not have been the first to breed Arabian horses in Iraq, but they are one of the oldest families still breeding purebred horses, and are considered the largest breeder in the country.

“My family owns a large estate 40km to the North of Mosul, and our stud farm is located in the village of Jediadat Halla,” said Dr. Nujaifi. “The stud farm is home to 120 Purebred Arabian mares and 21 stallions. In addition, we have 70 Anglo-Arabian mares and 6 Thoroughbred stallions.”

A little history:

In the days that Great Britain occupied Iraq after WW I, they brought with them the love of horse racing.The British built four race courses, which were up and running by 1920. Three of the race courses were in Baghdad: Al-Mansour, Al-Washah, and Nadim Al-Tabaqjali Sequare, and the fourth was in Basra, 550km to the south on the Arabian Gulf.

In the glory days of horse racing the Baghdad Equestrian Club (BEC) was the most prestigious racing venue in the Middle East. “All races were for Purebred Arabians and there was no other breed available in Iraq at that time,” said Dr. Nujaifi. “At the highest level races, betting was allowed.”

Mohammad Al-Nujaifi riding Al-Hasim (grey horse), and his brother Osama Al-Nujaifi (current Speaker of Parliament) riding Al-Malik Al-Ahmar in the fields of their farm Jeddiat Halla 2012

During the early years there were many famous breeding farms with modern breeding studs,” continued Dr. Nujaifi. “One of the most famous was owned by a Jewish gentleman named Munashi Sha’ashoo, whose stud was just outside Baghdad. He collected the very best Arabian mares available. There were other Arab and Kurdish breeders in addition to small breeders in the countryside. I remember when I would accompany my father in his travels buying horses from middle and south of Iraq, that we could hardly find a house without at least a mare or two. This was simply because horse breeding was a good source of extra income. There were no Thoroughbred or any other breeds in Iraq at that time. All breeds were pure Arabians only.  When the racing started in 1920, it was only for Purebred Arabians. No other breeds were available for racing.”

Iraq has been a centre of Arabian horse breeding since the 18th century, when Iraqi breeders sold their horses to race in British India. Early exports to Europe started in 1836, and the first horse exported was the stallion, Padishah. This stallion was given as a gift from the Ottoman Governor of Baghdad, Dawood (Daud) Pasha, to the British Ambassador in Iran, who gave the horse the Persian name of Padishah and exported him to the UK.

Politics play a major role in racing everywhere, and particularly Iraq. The 10 years from 1980-1990 was the golden era of Arabian racing with a social crowd that wanted to see and be seen at the racecourse. Between 1990-1993, there was a sharp drop in the number of horses, owners, and trainers. In 1993 Saddam ordered the racing to move outside of Baghdad and built a grand mosque where the racecourse had been. Between 1995-2000 many race people migrated to the Arab Gulf countries. The war conflict during 2003 that changed the leadership of Iraq drove out many of the elite players, and many more breeders left. During this time, horses were neglected, sold, or smuggled out of the country.

Racing continued in the country at reduced levels during the conflict, and according to Dr. Nujaifi, “It only stopped for three weeks during the war in 2004.”

Fahad Al-Shoul-A super race horse in Iraq in the winning enclosure in 1967.

The invasion and subsequent looting destroyed all the club’s facilities, but accustomed to setbacks, the club members invested an estimated $500,000. to rebuild the track and restart racing.

Today, racing at Baghdad Equestrian Club continues on the dirt track oval at distances up to 1½ miles, and it is the only race course in Iraq to register statistics for Arabian racing with IFAHR. The season runs for 10 months from September to June or July. Popular Group races include the 2000 Guineas race in March for 3 year olds;  the Baghdad  Derby over 2400m, usually in April; and the  Farewell Cup, the last meeting of the season which is usually in June every year.

There remains no Thoroughbred racing but Anglos with a variety of TB blood in them,” continued Dr. Nujaifi. “It was only two years ago that people started importing horses from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, which we believe to be Thoroughbred. Special races were opened for these imported horses. Since there is no Weatherbys (stud-pedigree reference) office in Iraq, we regard them as imported Anglos and they race among themselves.”

Movement of horses in and out of Iraq is a challenge. “It is easier to bring horses into Iraq, but extremely difficult to export horses out of Iraq,” said Dr. Nujaifi. “That is because since 1992 Iraq is no longer a signatory to the Third Party Treaty which allows free movement between horses in the countries signatory to this treaty (after proper quarantine).”

I struggled for 10 years to convince some countries bordering Iraq to give me special permission to import horses to them, being properly quarantined, then exported to Europe. That was when I decided to establish a small breeding program in France. Currently I have four broodmares, two stallions, and five racing horses in France.”

Dr. Al-Nujaifi has been listed in the top ten of Arabian race horse owners since 2010 according to  IFAHR. He is now standing at stud racing stallions, Izz al-Khail (Matador x Amal Al Thania), and Al Harith (Asad Saif x Wadha Al Thania). Two of his favorite, and highest rated racers in Europe at present are the filly, Gharraa, (Matador x Wadha Al Thania) rated 113 and awarded horse of the year in Sweden for 2011, and Hilal Al-Zaman (Mencour x Amal Al Thania) rated 119.  “I only race my own breeding and only buy for breeding and not racing,” he said.

Gharaa wins the Swedish Derly 2011

What might be the key to the success of the Al-Nujaifi horses?

There are so many successful breeders in the world,” said Dr. Nujaifi. “Success is based on the selection of the best possible matches of mares and stallions, and widening the gene pool, which works most of the time. But, you need some luck as well.”

Photos courtesy of Dr. Nujaifi.

~by Pamela








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