Imagine a tropical paradise, far from everything. A place where almost everybody speaks both English and French, where beaches look like they come out of lottery ads and where horse racing is the biggest sport of all. Welcome to Mauritius. A racing lover’s dream.Mauritius. An Island the size of Delaware or Luxembourg that geographically belongs to Africa, even though it’s some 1,800km from the shores of the continent. But ethnically (for lack of a better word), Mauritius is a melting pot. Some 1.3 million Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all live together and often even celebrate each other’s holidays.
Add to this a fantastic climate (they don’t even get monsoons) a ranking of 18 in The Economist’s 2015 Democracy Index, and the fact that it is regarded as the only full democracy in Africa. It’s hard to find any major faults here.
Mauritius is so small that it takes less than 90 minutes to drive from north to south, but it is very diverse, with an economy featuring small businesses, local hotel groups, local car rental companies, and much more.
Even if it is a major tourist destination, the very fact that it is far away from almost everything has kept mass tourism and its industrial approach away. With a little help from government policies. This doesn’t mean that Mauritius is a place just for the rich and famous. On the contrary, it is easy to find everything from romantic luxury getaways to a hut on the beach for kite-surfing beach bums.
The over-arching feeling you get from Mauritius is that it’s friendly and open-minded. At first glance it is hard to figure out the infrastructure. The area between the grandstand and the actual track is also a regular street.
”It’s natural selection,” laughs a local man we speak to on a bus. “We’re a small island so there’s nowhere to go. It’s in everybody’s best interest that we get along.” Mauritius has no original population. It was first colonized by the Dutch, then the French, and finally the British before independence in 1968. The colonial powers imported slaves at first, and later laborers, from Africa, Madagascar, and India. When The British took over Mauritius (then Isle de France) in December 1810, they realized that cooperation was better than confrontation and that people from the two cultures needed some kind of common arena to meet and find unity. As is still often the case today, it turned out to be horses that provided this arena. In 1812, the Champ de Mars racecourse was opened and today – more than 200 years later – the track still sits at its original location in the centre of the island’s capital Port Louis. On every race day, scores of people gather for the races and the atmosphere is one of a tropical party. “Racing is the most popular sport in Mauritius,” says Khalid Rawat, deputy Racing Manager at Mauritius Turf Club.
“No matter who you speak to on the island, they will all have ideas about winners and favorite trainers, jockeys and horses.”
In most major racing countries, racing and breeding are intimately linked. And it is often felt that the breeding industry is a key to the success of racing. Interestingly enough, two of the places where racing really thrives do not have any breeding at all – Hong Kong and Mauritius.
In both places, horses (geldings) are imported at racing age, and since there is no breeding shed waiting they can run for many seasons, giving fans a good chance to get to know them. Many trainers have farms outside the city where horses go for breaks and retired racehorses are the base of all other equestrian activities in Mauritius. The turf club also has a training centre with 150 boxes on the central plateau on the island, where the climate is cooler.
”Our horses are stars,” says trainer Yannick Perdrau. “We have hundreds of people who come to watch our morning work-outs, and every horse has a saddle cloth with his name on it, even in training.”
The track in Port Louis is designed like no other. At first glance it is hard to figure out the infrastructure. The area between the grandstand and the actual track is also a regular street. When there is training or racing the street is simply closed and used as standing space for spectators.
And then there is the grandstand. Or the absence of a grandstand in any conventional sense. Instead there is a long building with row upon row of balconies, each belonging to private boxes that have often run in families for generations. On non-race days, with cars on the street and balcony windows shut, there is not much to reveal that there is a major race track here.
But come race day the building is bursting with people and the infield turns into a tropical party with betting offices and street food. Behind the grandstand is what is likely one of the most beautiful parade rings in the world. Like a secluded colonial era retreat with flowers and well dressed people looking out over the thoroughbreds. Being well dressed is key here. You are not allowed in any of the private box sections of the grandstand on a race day without a shirt and tie! Behind the parade ring comes a second city street – home to the trainers and their barns. During racing and training all traffic is stopped and horses, grooms, and fans take over.
It might look unorganized at first sight, but it’s not. Racing here is a well-orchestrated mechanism that has developed over 200 years. Everybody knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing. The starting gate staff often have more than 20 years experience and the job is passed on from father to son.
During our visit a horse was injured and before anyone even realized what was going on it was surrounded by staff members who came running to the scene.
The horses are in great shape with shining coats. One truly feels that the concept of racing for many seasons makes trainers and owners really look after what they have. There is no ‘rush for the new 2-year-olds’ to come in and replace the older horses.
Practically all horses in Mauritius come from South Africa. The quarantine rules from South Africa are very strict and Mauritius is one of few places South African horses can go without problems. Mauritius is also used as a quarantine site for South African horses going to other parts of the world. Here they can stay in training and even race during the quarantine period.
“South African racing is what we follow and our races are also viewed over there”, says Khalid Rawat. “There is a very high level of integration between racing in the countries.”
The season in Mauritius runs from March to December with the biggest race of the season ‘The Maiden Cup’ run in September and attracting a crowd of about 60,000 people. The season traditionally ends with the International Jockeys weekend in the first weekend of December 1984. A great PR idea by the Turf Club who have been inviting some of the best jockeys in the world for a holiday week with two days of racing – including the finals of the Fegentri Ladies World Championships. The 2016 line-up included Maxime Guyon and Jamie Spencer and previous years have seen the likes of Frankie Dettori, William Buick, and Christophe Soumillon on the tight track (1,300m or 6.5f).
It’s fascinating to see these world-class jockeys overwhelmed by the reception from the crowds. Each jockey has his or her own fan-club, waving the flag of the winning jockey’s country and chanting their name. “I couldn’t believe it,” star French jockey Maxine Guyoun said after winning one of the races on the weekend. “There was much more cheering than after winning a Group 1 race in France. You really feel like a superstar here.” On the Sunday of the weekend it’s time for the final race of the season in the Fegentri Ladies World Championships. There is nothing in the crowd’s interest indicating that this is a race for amateur riders. On the contrary, when the girls gather in the parade ring for the pre-race presentation it is like the line-up of the runners before the 100m finals in the Olympics. And after Lara le Geay from France won the race and was later presented with the World Championship Trophy, the parade ring quickly filled with local celebrities who all wanted to take selfies with the riders.
“We keep telling the jockeys that racing is so big here,” Khalid says. “But they don’t understand how big it is until they get here and ride.”
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