The audience was excited and could not stop clapping and chanting. Everybody fixed their eyes on the green boxes waiting for the signal that would kick off the race. The anticipation was so intense that it was hard to sit still. When the race started, the thousands of people standing on their feet knew they were witnessing history.
Last Sunday, I attended to my very first Gazi Race, which is the oldest and most prestigious horse race in Turkey. I must admit, it was everything that I didn't expect. In Turkey, horse races are believed to be a patriarchal support. However, the scene I witnessed on Sunday was far from it.
The first and only horse race I watched in my life before last Sunday's Gazi Race was the Palio, the Italian horse race that has been organized since the 16th century in the town of Siena. The Palio takes place in the main square of the town and locals as well as tourists fill the square to take a glimpse of this historical race. Compared to my experience in Siena, the Gazi Race, which is in the Veliefendi Hippodrome in Bakırköy, Istanbul, every June, is a festivity that Istanbulites and horse lovers from all over Turkey participate in with their families to enjoy a sunny Sunday.
The Gazi Race was established in 1927 in honor of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. The race is open to the most successful horses of the season -three-year-old thoroughbreds born in Turkey. The very first Gazi Race was restricted to British-bred horses and the winner was a horse named Neriman owned by a famous candy producer at the time. In 1968, the race was moved from Ankara to Istanbul and has been held at Veliefendi ever since.
For the last couple of years, I was very intrigued by the race, as I saw people going in and out from the Veliefendi Hippodrome with their families enjoying themselves. I always believed that horse racing was a male-dominated sport, but all my prejudices were proved wrong on Sunday. I arrived at Veliefendi around 3 p.m. The races - there are many that take place on the day and the Gazi Race is the main event - were not scheduled to start until 5 p.m., yet people were already flocking to the racetrack with their picnic baskets hanging from their arms.
The Veliefendi Hippodrome in Bakırköy covers an enormous area and features a race track events area and a large picnic area. The Gazi Race is mostly an excuse for families to have a picnic on a nice Sunday while watching some of the best-bred horses in Turkey. Since I had time to kill before the first race, I took my time to explore the complex and study the races and the horses that were about to shine on the racetrack. The first race of the day was dedicated to female jockeys, honoring the female presence in the sport. In fact, the Gazi Race is a special event for women. Just like the races in Europe and the U.S., women wear their most beautiful clothes and eye-catching hats at the races. So, I think it was a nice touch to give the first spot to the female jockeys.
As I waited for the main event, I observed the horse lovers and, to be honest, I had never seen such passionate people in my life. Most people think that Turks are passionate about football, but I think they have never been to a horse race in Turkey.
The preparations for the races begin almost an hour before. From the big screen installed in the middle of the racetrack, the audience is kept updated with the latest bets and the recent conditions of the horses. With 30 minutes to the main event, children training to be jockeys one day parade around the racetrack dedicated to the Gazi Race, which was held for the 91st time honoring Atatürk. Following the parade, the 22 horses and their jockeys and owners, among which there was a woman as well, were presented to the audience, which caused a stir among the spectators. As I understood from the comments, the horse named Finesse was the favorite. However, people also wanted the horse named Piano Sonata to win, as its jockey, Ahmet Çelik, would be the first jockey in the last 44 years to win the race three-times in a row.
When the preparations were done, the horses were led to the green starting boxes. When the green light was given, the horses and their jockeys took off and the audience stood up and began cheering for the horses they were supporting. It was an amazing thing to see these noble animals bred exclusively for racing. The race was only two-and-a-half minutes, but the atmosphere in the hippodrome made it feel like an hour. When the horses arrived at the home stretch, suddenly Piano Sonata began to leave his opponents behind and came in first, which was a surprise to most. The people were chanting and screaming the name of the horse and its jockey. For me, they were just horses - divine creatures indeed - and jockeys who were riding them, but for most of those standing that day in the hippodrome, they were idols.
I left after the ceremony and did not stay for the remaining races. After having seen the main event and the best horses of the season, I believed that nothing would match the race and the joy of the people that I saw. As I left Veliefendi, I knew that I would be back next year.