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BEIRUT – Beirut's famous racetrack, which once entertained Middle Eastern royalty, has fallen on hard times, and the fight over its future is revealing competing visions for public space in the Lebanese capital.
Set inside a pine forest reserve in the heart of Beirut and walled off from the city's concrete warrens, the Beirut Hippodrome used to hold 20-horse races that drew thousands of spectators, including the late Saudi King Faisal and Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Now, only four to five horses run at a time, to a thinning crowd of loyal fans and inveterate gamblers.
"The prizes are too low to attract new horse owners," said Lebanese Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon, himself a horse owner and a leading member of the private association that manages the track.
Gambling revenues are down, he explained, squeezing the track's bottom line.
The racetrack opened in 1916 and by the 1950s, it had become part of the architectural fabric of the young Lebanese republic. But it suffered greatly during the country's 15-year civil war and never recovered its former glory.
The hippodrome sits on a prized piece of real estate belonging to the city, and the mayor thinks it is time to open it to the public.
"I want this to be Beirut Central Park," said Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad, describing his plan for horse riding facilities, a golf course, and an "ecology village."
Critics say his vision is too narrow.
"A golf course is something which is extremely elitist and is ecologically unsustainable," said Mona Fawaz, an urban planning professor at the American University of Beirut.
Inside the grandstands, the debate draws little concern.
Bilal Shafwan, a 47-year-old taxi driver who has been coming to the races for 35 years, said he believes some of the city politicians are still getting some money out of the track.
"If they couldn't steal from the racetrack, they would have closed it long ago," he said.
As the horses came around the track on a recent day at the races, the crowd of mostly working class men rose to its feet to cheer their favorites on. The attendance was too sparse to drown out crisp obscenities of the most enthusiastic fans.
After one race, a spectator threw his plastic lawn chair down several flights of the stands, hitting another fan below.
Shafwan said he would keep betting despite the match-fixing allegations, he explained, "because I'm a dupe."