Life and Death on Ak-Kula Hippodrome

How money and drama intertwine in Kyrgyzstan’s nomad horse racing

Hundreds of horses live in stables right next to the Bishkek hippodrome of Ak-Kula © Danil Usmanov

wo hundred men fiercely whistle and howl each time riders gallop past, lifting a cloud of dust into the blazing hot air. On May 8th, 2015, the mayor hosted Victory Day horseraces at the site of a former cemetery in Kara-Balta, a small city 60 kilometers west of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. A bay stallion with a white speck on his forehead gets ahead and leads all 20 kilometers of the main race of the day, Alaman Baige. His rivals are still far behind as he reaches his last lap. The crowds hoots “Chap! Chap! Chap!” as the stallion finishes first. The stallion gallops ten more meters and drops: his heart has ruptured.

The stallion was nicknamed Temujin after Genghis Khan, but everyone lovingly called him Timoha. He was three years old, and this was his first big race in a new season. As a two-year-old, Timoha came in first twice, and there were high hopes for him. A couple of hours before the last race, just after a horse-box arrived from Bishkek, a Kazakh horse breeder approached the owner and offered to buy Timoha for $7,000. He said that he would give more — $20,000 — if the horse came first. The stallion was not ready to run 20 kilometers. He was brought here to “open up” — to run half the distance as a workout before summer races. But greed took over, and now Timoha lays in agony at the finish line. He waits for a “red necktie” — a wide stream of blood running from his slit throat. If the stallion was an accomplished champion, he would be buried next to his home stables, joining at least a dozen other unfortunate racers. But Timoha has a different path: he is headed to the meat factory. This is what often happens to ailing racers: they are cooked into sausages. If the tough meat of long-distance runners is stewed for extra hours, it can be added to Beshbarmak, a traditional Kyrgyz dish. Instead of $20,000, Timoha was sold for $350.

Delica was one of the nine horses that died on Ak-Kula Hippodrome on the race day© Danil Usmanov

No one expects this scenario in advance. The dream that drives people in Kyrgyzstan to get a stallion is to become an owner of a champion like Tachanka, a regally calm light gray mare, named after a Soviet machine-gun carrier. In three years Tachanka won six cars and about one million soms, and her price went up 58 times, from $3,000 to $175,000 (all figures regarding the costs of horses are based on rumors: owners refuse to confirm them because they do not want to attract attention from the financial police). A champion not only pampers an owner’s vanity — in Kyrgyzstan, keeping thoroughbred horses is more prestigious than collecting Rolls-Royces — but also brings profit: in one successful season a stallion can fully pay back his original price and the cost of his maintenance for years to come.

This is the logic of race business: a tai, or yearling, can cost between $1,500 and $10,000 depending on its pedigree. You buy it and train for a year. Then you let it race, and with each competition it wins, its price rises by tens of thousands of dollars. Later you can sell it or use it to produce new champions and earn more money: stud fees are in the range of $1000 to $2,000.

However, stars like Tachanka are among the very few. Just like a horse’s price tag rises with every win, it falls with each loss. A horse with an estimated price tag of $30,000 can cost half as much after a poor race. In fact, after each race most of the horses drop in price.

Groomer strokes Stikhiya shortly before the race © Danil Usmanov

Baige is the most popular horse race in Kyrgyzstan. Its distinctive feature is a long distance, which varies from 4 to 30 kilometers. It is likely that Baige comes from the looting that nomadic people were involved in centuries ago. This explains why the races could go on for hundred kilometers and why “Alaman Baige” means “bandit prize.”

Alaman Baige — the most prestigious, the longest and the cruelest race — lasts for half an hour. Horses gallop from 18 to 30 kilometers, running a kilometer per minute. Usually, less than half reach the finish line. Some horses sustain injuries. Some drop dead right at the finish line or die shortly after, suffering from heart attacks, brain hemorrhages or leg fractures. Kyrgyzstan lacks the proper medical equipment to treat horses for limb fractures. No matter how much a horse is worth and how long its breeding lineage is, a limb fracture is a death sentence. It is impossible to persuade a 400-kilogram animal to endure pain without movement and spare its leg. Instead, the horse continues to step on the broken limb, and its condition worsens. Sometimes pain drives the animal mad, and it tries to kill itself, slamming its head into a wall, strangling itself with bars or chewing off its leg. As a result, in cases of limb fracture, horse-trainers often decide to kill the horse immediately.

Stikhiya is in agony — she dropped during top baige, and horsemen try to revive her © Danil Usmanov

Timoha’s owner, Alexander, forgot what the award for first place was that day — everything was in a blur, he says. However, he remembers that ten years earlier, on another race where his horse died in similar circumstances, he was given 100 dollars and a DVD-player, which he immediately smashed, throwing it into the stands. Alexander says that he has long ceased to cry over dead horses and has become accustomed to the inevitability of death. Still, his profile photo on a social network platform is of Timoha.

Timoha grew up in the stables №11, one of a dozen that are located right next to the Bishkek hippodrome of Ak-Kula. Alexander Fyodorov, or Shuke, as his assistant calls him, is the head of the stables and a horse-trainer. Shuke stands out among other trainers at the racetrack: he is Russian and grew up in Bishkek, not in the countryside. His appearance is different too: Shuke is twice as wide as anyone else and looks more like a former boxer than a jockey — one who quit sports a decade ago (he did). Shuke is 30. He was an eight-year-old child when his father first brought him to equestrian school and he fell in love with horses. In third grade, he started skipping classes to go to the hippodrome, where he groomed horses for free just to be close to the animals. In sixth grade, he finally left school for the stables.

Shuke hugs jockey Renat after winning the race © Danil Usmanov

“People are mean, jealous, and greedy. Everyone wants to make a fool of each other, while a horse — if you don’t hurt it, it won’t hurt you”, he explains. “What do I love most in life? I love raising foals. They are like children, we treat each foal as a child”. Shuke is divorced and calls his passion for horses a sickness that, unlike love, does not go away. Hard labor, neuroses, losses — he wanted to become a soldier or a businessman, but cannot do long without horses. This story is common among horse-trainers, many of whom tried to do something else but eventually returned to do what they love.

As with most of the stables, №11 is inhabited not only by animals but also by people. Some trainers say that the snoring of your favorite horse is like music to your ears. Horses are noisy roommates: they laugh, snort, fart, and knock on the walls in their sleep. Sometimes an animal tosses and turns, gets stuck, and starts banging into a wall until someone comes to help. №11 has three living rooms, each the size of a bathroom. In their spare time, groomers and trainers gather in the hall next to these rooms: they smoke, drink tea, munch on sunflower seeds, play backgammon, and watch TV, sometimes reviewing race records.

Foals run around the arena of the stables №11 © Danil Usmanov

Work in the stables starts before dawn and lasts 15 hours each day. Aside from cleaning up mounds of manure and dragging around countless buckets of water, grain, and sawdust, a stableman has to get across to capricious animals that seek to caress in one moment and try to bite off fingers in the next (sometimes successfully). Every day is a workday, including weekends. The work is dull, and wages are measly: an average groom earns $75 a month. Most men last three days before running away to find an easier way to make a living. Those who stay are looking for something other than money.

Each horse has its own personality. It can be nervous, calm, lazy, or cunning. Some let you know that they are smarter than you. Some have a naughty temper — when a stranger enters their pen, they turn down their ears and start chasing them. Some love attention: while looking sad in stalls, they immediately assume a dignified air in front of a crowd. All of this adds up to the key characteristic that determines a champion — a fighting spirit. If a horse does not want to win, nobody can force it to.

The most important skill that horse trainers hone their entire life is the prowess to “feel the horse.” Every morning a racehorse wakes up in a different mood. If the mood is good, the animal is playful: it jerks its head, dances, tries to snuggle up or kick you. If the mood is bad, it shows in every way that wants to be left alone. A trainer tailors daily workouts depending on the morning mood, setting from 5 to 15 kilometers at different paces, from walk to canter. A stallion has one vacation a year, for a few weeks in December, when the racetrack becomes too frozen for horse hooves. For the rest of the year, horses run several hundred kilometers every month. The line between an insufficient workout and an excessive one is very thin, and it is important to “feel the horse” to set exactly the amount of training that would develop stamina but not injure it.

During the races, jockeys can swear at one another and whip with a lash when passing by © Danil Usmanov

“Horses are like little kids”, says Alexander. “It is either teeth that hurt, or ass, or legs”. The animal easily gets cold, sneezes loudly and coughs for a long time. It has a sensitive stomach: many horses die from indigestion. You can injure a racehorse on a flat surface. Several racers broke their legs at the Cholpon-Ata hippodrome, where the track has a special surface. Breeders from Bishkek are afraid to go there for racing.

Stallions and mares compete in the same races, and champions are found equally in both groups. “A mare is nobler, she gives it her all and runs to her death. A stallion is more cunning: if he gets tired, he will feign sickness,” Shuke says. “At first, you cannot tell if he is pretending. Only the next day, when you see him in a mood to play and fool around, you understand that he was not tired.”

On a race day, the Bishkek hippodrome of Ak-Kula is so crowded that a crowd of twenty thousand people overflow from the stands, designed only for three thousand, to the field of the hippodrome. Spectators are everywhere: on fences, trees, and both sides of the track. On regular days, the hippodrome looks quite different. If it is foggy at dawn, the place looks as if it has been abandoned for decades. All you see in a gray haze is the attendant’s rusty wagon, metal debris of the scene and the holes in the fence. Horsemen flash through the fog now and then, piercing a thick silence with hoofbeats pounding into the ground and accompanying Russian rap from their mobile phones. A dozen stables stand right behind the racetrack. They are separated by a huge field of rotten manure, foul puddles and a muddy track with a patrol of local mongrels. The smell of horse manure and wasteland is in the air, and it doesn’t feel like the smell of big money. However, the total value of horses that train here exceeds several million dollars. The most expensive live in the stables of Alexander’s teacher — Kerim Omuraliev, who is considered the best horse-trainer in the country by many.

Cars are the measure of success on the hippodrome. This tradition, unique to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, is rooted in the nineties and linked to small purses. While betting is banned and sponsors are scarce, a race purse is often collected from contributions of participants, who contribute $30 to $100. “A car” sounds more sizeable than $1,500 dollars and becomes a grand prize. As horse breeders believe that a name affects results, nicknames of racers include all kinds of transport, from Parovoz (“Steam Train”) and Avtomashina (“Car”) to BMW and Airbus. The motley range reflects the reality: “a car” can equally turn out to be both a prehistoric Zhiguli worth $300, or a brand new Land Cruiser Prado worth $50,000. Newer cars are won in Kazakhstan, where purses are 10 times larger than in Kyrgyzstan and reach up to $200,000. Usually a trophy is sold soon after a race and money is divided among a team: an owner gets 50%, a trainer 30%, a jockey 10%. The remainder is spread across the rest of the team.

Cars measure success for both racehorses and for their trainers — the best ones earn several dozens. Every trainer knows his exact number of victories, but few say it out loud: horse breeders are superstitious and believe that bragging can jinx your luck, and luck means a lot in their business. Kerim claims he forgot how many cars he won — but it is around a hundred, including a new SUV from Kazakhstan.

“Sometimes people approach me asking to quit racing: “Baike, let us win too”, he smiles. “I already won everything I wanted… But now I need to do it twice”. He is 53 years old but does not even consider retirement: he wants to train horses as long as he can. Kerim is the only Kyrgyz horse-trainer who has professional training: he studied at the Ufa school of jockeys during Soviet times. His stables are home to 40 past and current champions, including Tachanka, Gank, Aikashka and Electra De La Rock. Each is worth $5,000 to $100,000 and has origins in Kyrgyzstan, France, Switzerland, or Ireland.

Jockeys hate being asked about their age and don’t hesitate to lie, adding five-seven years © Danil Usmanov

Kerim’s stables house nearly a dozen young jockeys. “We groom future trainers from early ages. I take the young and talented, they quickly grasp and become familiar with everything,” he says. “Some are like sons to me, and we have been together for many years”. Baige cannot do without his “kids.” When a race lasts 20 kilometers, every other kilogram affects the pace. As a result, Alaman Baige jockeys weigh less than 40 kilograms, ride without a saddle and look like third-graders — an illusion because in most cases they are either in the seventh grade or dropped out of school years ago. Skinny, slight and inseparable with a peaky cap, Kerim is an example of the “kid’s” evolution: 40 years ago he was one of them. For young jockeys, he is also a role model in another respect — he is among those few lucky horse-trainers who has won enough prize money to own several Thoroughbreds.

Horse-trainers can rarely afford to own a racehorse and prefer not to discuss those who do. They think the racing sport is too underfunded to scare people out of it. From a business standpoint, racehorses are a risky investment. They are expensive, eat a lot, require constant care, easily get sick or injured and often die. Keeping a horse is a costly deal: it costs at least $2,000 a year, more than many earn in Kyrgyzstan. Aside from renting a stall and feeding it (a horse needs 10 kilograms of hay and 15 kilograms of grain every day), you need to pay groomers and trainers, buy vitamins and medicine. However, most breeders in Kyrgyzstan don’t get horses for profit, but for prestige — to show off to their friends who would not be impressed by an expensive car. This has cultural roots: for the Kyrgyz, a horse has been a benchmark of social status since the time it was the most expensive thing that a nomad could own. There is an adage that “a horse makes you a man, without it you are a shadow”, and local folklore tells stories where quarrels around outstanding stallions ended up in bloody battles between families and tribes.

No one knows how many racehorses there are in Kyrgyzstan or what is their total value. The sale and purchase of racers go without formalism and is confirmed with just a handshake. Usually only imported horses have passports, and sometimes in a couple of years a horse can be exchanged between a dozen owners, drastically rising and falling in price, without any official records.

Jockeys and horsemen of Ak-Kula Hippodrome © Danil Usmanov

There are two types of racehorse owners: those who spend their last som on horses, and those for whom it is a hobby. It is easy to distinguish them at the races: the first stand at the edge of the racetrack and proudly announce which horse belongs to them, what hurdles they faced while preparing (ills, injuries, empty pockets) and how “everything inside shakes” in anticipation of the race. Many of them fell in love with horses in early childhood and either were jockeys themselves or got bitten by the bug from a horse racing enthusiast among their family.

The second type prefers to “keep it quiet” and remain unseen by the public. This category includes many politicians who are sometimes accused of “gifting” racehorses as bribes. They own only purebred and expensive racers, and can afford to bring them from Russia, Europe, and the US. Some of the best racing horses in the country belong to former Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, who left his office against a backdrop of a scandal involving his stallion named Islander One (allegedly “gifted” by a Turkish businessman). The Asanbek-Ata stud farm, named after the father of a local kingpin Kamchy Kolbaev, has won prizes at all major races during the last five years. The circle of rich horse enthusiasts is small: the horses of Babanov and Kolbaev live next to each other near the hippodrome in Cholpon-Ata. However, these owners are only money bags in a life of their horses. They visit stables once every couple of months and almost never ride. The better the pedigree, the more skittish the horse, and paying $20,000 does not guarantee that it will not try to fling you off or bite at the first opportunity.

he long distances are one of the main reasons why many horses die at baige races. When these races originated, the Kyrgyz rode a very different horse breed than they do today. They raced on a Kyrgyz horse — stocky, short-legged, and resilient. Today the breed has almost disappeared, and baige involves several different ones: Novokyrgyz, Arabian, Russian Trotter, and Akhal-Teke. But there is a breed that wins most of the races — English Thoroughbred. This breed is called “born in the races.” These horses can gallop at a speed of 70 kilometers per hour. In Europe, other breeds are forbidden to compete with Thoroughbreds because they are much faster than others. In Kyrgyzstan, there is no such rule: horse racing nearly disappeared during the nineties, and even today race participants are too scarce to limit participation with restrictions.

Some foreign horse breeders call the Kyrgyz “slaughterers” for making Thoroughbreds run long distances. Alaman Baige is 10 times longer than any of the English Classic races, and Thoroughbreds run to their death because, when tired, they don’t stop. On Russian horse sale sites some owners note: “Won’t sell to Kyrgyzs and the Kazakhs” — because they believe that baige kills horses.

Local veterinarians agree, calling the Baige torture. Trainers, in their turn, consider vets to be double-crossers: they say, doctor visits are too expensive, costing up to $300, and doping drugs, which doctors blame trainers for using, are sold by veterinarians themselves. The list of drugs given to racehorses includes Red Bull, painkillers, narcotics, and steroids that “turbo boost the horse”. Anything goes: the range of drugs is limited only by an owner’s imagination and money. Nobody knows how often it happens because there is neither medication, nor anti-doping control at the races.

Jockey Orozbek receives the prize after coming first in top baige © Danil Usmanov

“It is wild adrenaline. The brain turns off, all you can think is winning. It is difficult to understand it from the sidelines. One can say that it is just horses running. But when you train a horse day and night, and it wins, there is no better feeling,” says Alexander. Usually, trainers watch races from an edge of the racetrack field. Each channel their anxiety in their own way: some run around the track, trying to inspire his jockeys with curses and expressive gestures. Others freeze and follow the course of the race, intensely chain-smoking cigarettes. Today, on May 9th, 2017, Kerim is absent from the racetrack: three weeks ago a mare kicked him in the chest, and he checked into a hospital with a ruptured spleen. As a rule, Shuke smokes a few packs on a race day. He has four horses running in today’s races, but instead of a cigarette has a grass blade in his mouth. He promised himself: “If Alliance gets a prize, I’ll quit smoking.”

After the awards ceremony jockey Orozbek looks tired and upset—another horse from his stables died during the race © Danil Usmanov

By noon the air temperature reaches 30 Celsius, and the races begin at the height of the heat. One of Shuke’s horses stumbles and drops out of the race, but Alliance comes in second. During one of the last races of the day, a horse from Cholpon-Ata, Stikhiya (“element” in Russian) falls down. A crowd gathers, trying to revive her.

Traditionally, the last race is Alaman Baige. A black stallion leads the race neck and neck, but his victory is overshadowed by a flurry near the finish line: on the second-to-last lap Delica, a racer from Kerim’s stables, stops and staggers in front of the stands. People run up to the field and try to keep her from collapsing. They push her from both sides, shower with water, cut to bleed, whip and cheer, but she keeps rolling her eyes and falling again and again. Stikhiya lays 300 meters away; the award ceremony passes on the backdrop. The trainer of the winner, shining with happiness and shaking the trophy to a sound of the tinkling of komuz, Kyrgyz string instrument, leaves the racetrack riding the main prize — an old, but shining Skoda Octavia.

A horse with an IV line heads to stables after racing © Danil Usmanov

Nine out of 129 horses died that day at Ak-Kula Hippodrome. They say the race was “too quick” — everyone was running too fast. No one counts how many racing horses die in a year, but last year saw larger losses: at a race in Sokuluk, nearly 20 horses had died the previous spring.

After a race, a horse steams like a smoking gun, panting and glittering with sweat, as if washed with oil, foam, and salt. During a race, it loses up to 30 kilograms. If everything is ok, in a few hours it will come to its senses. Ideally, everyone gets what they want: the jockey — a medal, the owner — keys to a car, and the horse — a long-awaited lunch and a prospect of rest for three days. But it is not what always happens. A racehorse runs about 25 races in a lifetime (five races a year), which in turn are the 12 most dangerous hours of its life. The chance to survive to old age is tiny: although horses can live up to 30 years, most horses in the stables of Bishkek hippodrome are between 1.5 and 8 years old. Very few are older than 12.

The Victory Day races ended soon after six o’clock. By this time the parking lot in front of the racecourse, filled with horse-boxes, jockeys, grooms, trainers, and owners from the early morning, was empty. Kerim’s stables were closed and dead silent. Right across from the stables, a crowd gathered to celebrate the winner’s trainer, and he was beaming in the light of the setting sun. A horse with an IV line passed by, with one man leading it and another holding a solution and showering its mane with water. Two jockeys with bags full of soda, buns and grilled chicken headed to stables №11. The sultry evening sweetly smelled of horse manure. Everything was as usual: another race day at the Bishkek hippodrome has ended.

Russian version of this article was initially published on Kloop Media