Text size

In Room 510 at the Zinman College for Physical Education and Sport at the Wingate Institute, Abed Zuabi of Tamra is handing out tasty meat pasties to his classmates. They eat heartily, but their conversation focuses on a different type of food. Hay. The classmates, all horse trainers, owners or managers of horse ranches, are hungry for premium oats.

The hay grown in Israel is intended mainly for cattle and sheep, and is too coarse for horses' stomachs. Even imported hay is not high quality. Other horsemen may be willing to compromise, but those who will be coming to Wingate Institute every week for the coming year are particularly interested in giving their horses the best. After all, their investment in feed mix could provide a sevenfold yield. These students are attending the first program in Israel for racehorse trainers, a course initiated by veterinarian Dr. Dan Carmeli in conjunction with Gilad Ram of Kibbutz Geva, who is known as the leading Israeli expert on racehorses.

Peripheral requirements

The subject of horse races was supposed to be part of the enrichment program in the ranch manager's curriculum, but 22 of the 25 students in the course expressed a special interest in it, so the focus was altered accordingly.

Horse races have been taking place in Israel for thousands of years, as evinced by the ruins of the impressive hippodrome discovered in ancient Caesarea. In modern-day Israel, official horse racing is held once every six weeks in Pardes Hannah, but not on a large scale and not for betting purposes. There are also unofficial races in various farming communities.

In recent years talks have been held to regulate the sport. In August 2004 the government's social-economic cabinet approved the regulation of horse racing - despite protestations from then welfare minister Zevulun Orlev - and received the blessing of Education Minister Limor Livnat. Plans for the construction of two stadiums for horse racing have been drafted since then and are waiting for the final decision regarding the authority that will supervise gambling on the races.

In the meantime, Carmeli is trying gradually to prepare all the peripheral requirements for horse racing. "If tomorrow the Sports Betting Council and the Finance Ministry were to reach an agreement, it would take a year to set up a race track," says Carmeli. "To establish a horse racing environment, however, takes more than a year. To train horses to run, thousands of horses are needed, because horses have to be born and grow up. It's a process that takes years. They have to be prepared; they need proper stables; someone has to prepare their food; they need people who can treat them medically, to ride them, train them and shoe them, and all those things don't exist in Israel."

The three course participants not interested in racing and for whom ranch management is their main concern have something else in common - they are the only women in the course. The organizers of the course say this is incidental. Ram, who recently returned from a training course in horse racing at the racetrack in Currough of Kildare, Ireland, reports that about half the participants there were women.

Only three of the participants in the course are Arabs, even though the mother tongue of about half the horse breeders in Israel is Arabic. One reason for the disparity is that the lectures are in Hebrew, another is that the Arab horse breeders in Israel raise mainly Arabian horses, which are not considered ideal for racing. The course organizers anticipate that with the development of the horse racing industry in Israel, thoroughbreds will start replacing Arabians among Arab breeders, too, and that the economic incentive will spur them to attend the course.

Carmeli specialized in racehorse medicine in La Plata, Argentina. Ram caught the bug after a visit to Australia, where he watched the hysteria surrounding the Melbourne Cup race. Now the two are trying to import both the knowledge they have acquired and the worldwide enthusiasm for this sport.

The course lasts a year and includes classes in equine medicine, horseshoeing, the anatomy and psychology of the horse, as well as business management, interpersonal communication and sales and customer service. Yossi Cohen, who manages the Internet portal Susim (Horses), lectures on the use of the Internet, which can serve horse owners who want to turn their animals into racing stars. Toward the end of the year classes will focus on races themselves, and the students will learn about nutrition for jockeys and how to treat the horse after a race.

Tremendous effort is being invested toward a goal that may not be realized, but the students have no doubts whatsoever.

"Whatever happens, I am not wasting my time here," says Ofer Braz of Mikhmoret, who owns some 50 Arabian horses. "I live, breathe and dream horses."

Is there not a contradiction between loving horses and racing them for money?

"I think racehorses have a very good life," replies Braz. "These horses get excellent treatment. They have to be happy to win."

Eilon Yosef of Moshav Haniel concurs. "Look around you," he says, indicating the many students who fill the institute's grassy areas in their afternoon break. "We are at Wingate, surrounded by athletes. Horses are like athletes; they need high morale."

Animal rights opposition

The comparison between the horse and the athlete is problematic, of course. Unlike the horse, the mature athlete enjoys the economic fruits of his labors, and will eventually be responsible for all the damage he has caused his own body. Carmeli, who is the chief veterinarian for the long-standing Israel Horse Protection Society, is up against various animal rights organizations, including Anonymous and Hakol Chai, in a confrontation whose positions are drafted according to two different conceptions of the nature of animals, one ancient, the other modern.

According to the modern conception, which the various rights organizations advocate, the racehorse is like a slave, unable to defend itself against exploitation or to control its destiny; the traditional conception of domesticated animals is that they fulfill the purpose man designates for them, but enjoy pampering that many animals can only dream about.

The global racing industry developed, of course, long before the modern concepts of suffering and protection for animals, which many countries accept as an undeniable necessity. In Israel, which is adopting horse racing in the 21st century, the graduates of Carmeli and Ram's course will undoubtedly be faced with suspicion and hostility from society.

The main criticism of the treatment of racehorses concerns their fate after their retirement from the track. Racehorses have a very short professional life - up to three years - after which many of them around the world become victims of neglect and are even abandoned or slaughtered. Carmeli explains that the regulation of horse races is intended to combat such cruelty, as well as physical damage caused to horses by neglect or excessive training. He expects the horses that cannot beat the clock to be retrained as jumpers, as riding horses for tours or as breeding horses that will produce a new generation of sprinters. "At present there is no supervision," says Carmeli. "The horses are pumped full of stimulants and some arrive at the races already lame. No one examines their physical condition. At a legal and official race track, it would be out of the question to enter a lame horse in a race."