Once the preserve of the ruling white minority, horse racing in Zimbabwe adapted to survive independence in 1980 by attracting a loyal following of local fans who enjoyed a bet.
Now the country’s only track, at Borrowdale outside Harare, is threatened with closure – highlighting how a worsening economic crisis has pushed even the hardiest of colonial-era legacies to the brink of extinction.
“We do fear for the long-term survival of the sport,” leading trainer Bridget Stidolph said, as she stood in the unsaddling paddock after a race.
“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.”
As owners, breeders and gamblers all pull out, the number of racehorses stabled in Zimbabwe has dropped from nearly 500 five years ago to just 120 today.
Only four full-time trainers, all of them white, remain in business.
Zimbabweans’ love of a wager kept the sport alive, but the country’s economic output has halved since 2000 and unemployment stands at over 90 percent – sending betting revenue to new lows.
No official gambling figures are available, though attendance for the flagship Castle Tankard race on May 6 was only a few thousand people compared with crowds regularly in excess of 20,000 several years ago.
“I was given a free ticket for today,” said spectator Keddy Masango, 30, an unemployed man from Harare.
“I used to have a bet. I can’t gamble without money. Now I just come here for the day to look.”
“Zimbabweans love racing and having a bet, so it is sad that many can’t enjoy their entertainment,” said Cuthbert Mangoma, who works as a driver, admitting he lost $40 betting during “a day when I had no luck”.
The crowd at the races is mostly male, with some taking advantage of cheap beer supplied by the sponsors, Delta Beverages.
Older punters study race forms in tattered newspapers, while clerks use chalk to write up betting odds on blackboards.
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.
After independence from Britain, white Zimbabwean owners and trainers, as well as support from a thriving South African circuit across the border, helped keep horse racing alive.
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.
Borrowdale’s bullishly confident chief executive Clever Mushangwe said that Zimbabwean racing’s best hope of survival was that the government recognises it as a rare source of jobs.
About 1,500 people are still employed by the sport, ranging from stable grooms to betting cashiers.
“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).
“We definitely will survive, I am certain that we can overcome the current difficulties.”
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.
This year, race promoters tried to attract more punters as well as families by also organising a fashion show, a children’s water funfair and an evening pop concert.
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.”