By Jayne Rose Gacheri
“After the isolation and exertion of life in the bush, whether on safari or farming, the hunters and farmers descended on Nairobi with the explosive enthusiasm of sailors hitting a port.”
- Bartle Bull in his book, Safari.
Racing in Kenya is rich in history, from its humble beginning at Malindi when the Sheikh of Malindi, Sheikh al-Bauri, planned a racing event to entertain Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama in 1498. However, the first recorded race meeting happened in Machakos in 1839.
Under the auspices of the then East African Turf Club on June 22, 1897, the first meet was held to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. This took place at the Imperial British East Africa Company administrative forte of Machakos. This premiere race, titled Machakos Challenge Cup, was over a half-mile and won by a pony named Tempest owned by Frank Hall, the District Officer at Kiambu. Further races took place in 1898 and 1899.
Enter Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee (founder, The African Standard, and current day The Standard); in 1890 and a decade later, racing accelerated to higher heights. The success of the Machakos and Nairobi races are attributed to him, with the first Nairobi race taking place in 1900.
Those initial races were marred with intricacies as the racecourse bordered the open plains teeming with wildlife. For instance, during one of the early meetings, a rhino (they were not endangered then), appeared on the racecourse and upset the racing with the riders heading back to the starting point faster than they had ever imagined. The rhino entertained the spectators by performing intricate charges before eventually trotting off to the woods with its tail triumphantly wagging in the air.
In Nairobi in 1903, a lion chased a zebra across the racecourse as a race was in progress. Word has it that this was the fastest race that happened in the jockey’s career, although a number of the horses scampered on seeing the lion in possession of the freshly-killed zebra. Such were the intricacies of the first races.
The media reporting of the happenings in the racing industry was also bizarre. An article appearing in The African Standard of Wednesday, December 24, 1902 read, “Mr W Grant CMG lost his magnificent Arab horse while crossing the Mpologome River on his way to Buka. This is the second fine animal Mr Grant has lost in two years”.
The races were a crowd-puller, with spectators travelling by rail from all corners of the East African protectorate in costumes varying from bright gowns of the European women down to the parti-coloured leso of the silver-bangled African woman. Everybody went to the races, including governors. Even today, these races are synonymous with fashion shows.
So important was the Nairobi race that it drew many from beyond the protectorate including Kermit Roosevelt, son of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, who rode in six races in 1909. His father accompanied him. The list of VIPs included royal monarchs and celebrities such as Lord Delamere, Charles Clutterbuck, Berkeley Cole, Sir William Northrup, Lady Lucie McMillan, David and Lady Jex-Blake, Captain Spencer Tryon, and Gooch Graham.
Notable breeders and trainers and other big names such as Diana, Lady Delamere, Beryl Markham (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic) are part of the big names in this rich racing history.
By 1907, a grandstand had been built where the spectators could watch the racers from an elevated vantage point. This has been improved over the years to include private boxes for dignitaries, special sitting for VIPs, several other grandstands as well as a picket fence marking the edge of the racecourse. This setting stands to date.
In 1920, Kenya became a Crown Colony and the East African Turf Club changed its name to become the Jockey Club of Kenya, which it carries to date. Racing spread further upcountry when the Uasin Gishu Gymkhana Club was formed in Eldoret in 1921. By 1954, the Ngong Racecourse was remodelled after the famous English Ascot course and grandstand, and racing moved from the old Kariokor racecourse. This success was thanks to David Bowden, a racing enthusiast who kept his eyes on racing in Kenya for almost 60 years.
The first African jockey entered racing in 1909, and by 1919, many Africans were riding and winning races. Sadly, though, they were never listed, and were only described as “natives”. However, by 1990, many Africans had entered the horseracing industry with great names such as Joe Muya, a hotelier, breeder, and Jockey Club Director, Steve Njuguna, and Patrick Mungai, both champion jockeys and trainers among others.
“In the past, we Kenyans did not involve ourselves in horses because we saw it as a very niche sport only for white people, but now things are different,” said Muya in a past interview.
Racing continued to grow and today Ngong Racecourse with its nine-hole golf course (opened in 2003) remains the only public horseracing course in East Africa. Presently, the racing industry employs more than 25,000 people.
Despite many challenges, horseracing survived to become a well-established institution that now uses modern technology with betting and watching taking place online. This is why, like the two days I visited, a crowd of only a handful attended, most of them being local seasoned betting punters.
If you are interested in the history of racing in Kenya, you can buy the book, ‘And They’re Off! – A history of more than 100 years of Racing in Kenya, Then & Now’.