Iraqi Kurdistan's first professional horse race with betting

And they're off! Iraqi Kurdistan holds first cash-betting horse race
2 min read
13 Feb, 2018
Photoblog: Horses, jockeys, gamblers and racing fans from across Iraq travel to Erbil for the region’s first professional horse race to offer cash betting. Photos by Claire Thomas.
Professional horse racing is relatively new in Iraq’s Kurdish region [Claire Thomas]
Professional horse racing is a relatively new sport in Iraq’s Kurdish region, yet it has been increasingly popular since Erbil’s International Equestrian Club began organising regular races last year.

At the Erbil International Equestrian Club, established in December 2014 as the first club of its kind in Iraqi Kurdistan, horse racing events have been held at their international standard racetrack since March 2017.

While spectators could previously place bets for the chance to win prizes such as phones and refrigerators, on 1 December 2017, the club held the first professional racing event where cash could be won.

The club hosts two races every month, as well as other events including show-jumping competitions. 

Widely considered ‘haram’, or forbidden under traditional Islamic Law, betting has long been a controversial practice in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. 

Seventeen-year-old jockey Ali Mohammed travelled from Baghdad to compete in three of the four races held on the first of December. "I’ve won two races today; this will be my third," he said. In his final race of the day, Mohammed finished in second place.

The club’s managers are confident that public interest in the events will continue to grow. "This is the first race on a professional track with cash betting," explains Godar Ibrahim, the Club’s Finance Manager. "They’ve been held in the countryside before but not officially."

"It gives us pride for Kurdistan to have such a professional place," explains Ibrahim. “The club doesn’t have a lot of income, so we want to make some money and many people here love horses and want to get some profit from them.”

The September 25 referendum on Kurdistan independence had an impact on the club’s activities. "A race was cancelled due to doubts about whether the jockeys and horses could physically get to the club," he explains. They also had problems in getting their supply of horse feed, which is brought in from Baghdad.


The single largest bet placed at the December 1 event was $100. "He didn’t win in the betting but he won a heater in the lottery," explains Ibrahim. 

"We are trying to introduce the sport to the culture and the people," said finance manager Ibrahim. "We don’t even have machines for betting but in the future we will install them - the building is ready for it."

A mix of Arabian and thoroughbreds, some of the horses that took part in the event are owed by the club, others are privately owned and brought from all over Iraq to race.

Claire Thomas is a freelance photojournalist and horse-riding enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter: @sctphotographer