03/04/2011 5:25PM

Racing in the Middle East


"As long as you have racing in England, you will never have a revolution."

So quipped the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II to his uncle King Edward VII after an early 20th Century visit to Royal Ascot. His words have proved prescient, as England has not experienced a revolution since 1649 when Oliver Cormwell and his Parliamentarians lopped off the head of King Chalres I. Horseracing at the time was small potatoes, however. The sport didn't begin to flourish under rules until after the decapitated king's son. Charles II, returned form exile in Holland to reclaim the throne in 1660. The Merry Monarch's frequent forays from London up to Newmarket for the races, some of which he rode in himself when he wasn't riding his mistress Nell Gwyn, were a major factor in the early development of racing as we have known it ever since.

With the Mideast currently ablaze with revolutionary fervor, Kaiser Wilhelm's words might have served some of the region's more autocratic rulers. Three of the countries hardest hit by the political unrest- Egypt, Libya and Yemen- do not have racing industries. In the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in all of which racing is a rather major presence in the sporting world, the people have been quiet.

This is not to say that horseracing is a cure-all for political ills, not by any means, but a nation that makes room for sports like horseracing is one that is more open to freedom of association. Cromwell knew this. Despite owning racehorses himself, he banned racing in Britain because he understood that race meetings could become hotbeds of Royalist insurrection that might ultimately lead to his demise. In any case, his government was booted out after 11 years because the British people had grown weary of an all-controlling autocracy.

In the modern age, racing has no such political significance. Like football, soccer, basketball and baseball, it serves merely as a diversion from the humdrum of everyday life. The pleasure of hitting a 10-1 shot tends to dissipate one's worldly troubles. Even looking at horses is a relaxing exercise. Providing such innocuous entertainment for the people, as nearly all Western nations do, should be one of objectives of the new governments being formed in the Mideast.