All the king's horses

Updated: 2015-05-29 10:50

(China Daily USA)

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All the king's horses

A stablehand tries to tame a three-month-pregnant Ferghana owned by Yema Group. The company now stables 48 Ferghana horses at its facility, which is China's largest base for the pedigree breed. Zhao Heting / for China Daily

Rough racing

Every township in Zhaosu has its own racetrack, and they become hives of commotion and commerce at weekends.

Sarkuobu's track is simply a ring tilled by a tractor in a valley below the snowcaps. As the races draw near, the area is transformed from an isolated wilderness with no signs of humanity other than the loop into a boisterous gathering of nomads.

Men and their sons - the jockeys are boys aged 9 to 13, who weigh less than 30 kilograms - suddenly swarm in on horseback and motorcycles, and congeal into a clot atop the hillock. The surrounding expanse remains empty.

Entry fees are paid. Rules are shouted out. Then comes the thunder of hooves that kick up dust storms as they pound the ground at lightning speed. Appointed commentators howl the results.

After the official contest, the snarl of people unravels down the slope toward the track. Personal challenges are issued, and informal one-on-one races are staged. The only prize is pride.

Herdsman Nawubat is also a member of the race-organizing committee. His family's annual income fluctuates between about 6,000 yuan and 10,000 yuan, depending on the state of the grassland, but he can gross about 5,000 yuan a year from winning competitions. Nearly all of his winnings are plowed back into the horses, but sometimes costs exceed revenue.

Winners of official races can claim top prizes, such as cash, motorbikes, horses, sheep or cars. Nawubat has taken them all, with the exception of a car. He won 180 yuan at the recent meet.

He paid 30 yuan to enter the 5 km pony race and 50 yuan to enter the 7 km. His steed placed first, and was rewarded with candy. When Nawubat buys horses he usually chooses those sired by champions, but sometimes he goes with a gut feeling: "Racing is the best way to breed the best Ili horses and make them stronger and faster. It's important to breed winners. It's a Kazak tradition passed down through generations."

He is still grief-stricken about the death of his favorite horse last year. He said the mount, a wedding gift from his daughter's father-in-law, won many races, and he once turned down an offer of 90,000 yuan - three times the average price for an Ili stallion- for it.

"It was overexcited after it won a race and rolled over, displacing its organs," he said.

His wife added: "He cried for days. I've never seen him cry otherwise."

Their son, Azamat, who started riding at age 5 and raced until he reached the age limit, said he understood his father's grief.

"Horses are family members. We begin learning how to take care of the horses at a very young age - even before we learn how to take care of ourselves," the 17-year-old said.

"If I can't ride well, I have no right to call myself a Kazak."

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