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The name of the game is petrosports
J.D. Reed
November 17, 1980
Golf champ Mohammed Ahmed isn't the only athlete hitting it big out on the Arabian desert. Oil funds lavish facilities for sports from falconry to ice hockey
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November 17, 1980

The Name Of The Game Is Petrosports

Golf champ Mohammed Ahmed isn't the only athlete hitting it big out on the Arabian desert. Oil funds lavish facilities for sports from falconry to ice hockey

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But the main attraction in Bahrain for connoisseurs of the sport of kings will continue to be the racing of the royal Arabians. During the December-to-April season, the amir arrives every Friday afternoon, at the wheel of his blue Chevy, to indulge his passion. Thousands of Bahrainis, expats, Saudis and tourists throng to the two-mile sand oval near the royal city of West Rifaa.

There is no admission charge, and there are also no seats. One stands in the broiling heat, looking longingly at the amir's tribune—a low cement platform outfitted with the usual collection of Persian rugs, easy chairs, tables bearing boxes of colored tissues, telephones and bottled water. Surrounded by falconers carrying hooded birds, advisers, family members and friends, the amir bids the races begin. And there's no doubt who the winning owner will be—the amir owns all the horses. All the jockeys are his employees, and all wear silks in the national colors, red and white.

The amir's pureblood Arabians are rightly called the Living Treasure of Bahrain. His stable is estimated to be worth more than $50 million, and to see the horses run—clockwise, in the British fashion—their flanks lathered in the heat, and to hear the crowd howl is to witness one of the enduring Bedouin obsessions, thousands of years old and as fierce as the sun.

Although the amir will preside at the opening ceremonies of the new horse racing/equestrian/golf center, he grumbles about the competition. "Why did they want to spend millions to build that place when everyone knows that my horses are the best?" he says. "Who will go see these lesser animals?"

A lot of folks, particularly if rumors that his government will allow pari-mutuel betting prove true.

Development in falconry has also been considerable. Near Crown Prince Hamed's gardens in the village of Zallaq stands the $250,000 Sulman Falcon Center, one of the few places in the world designed for the breeding of such birds. "In the 2,500-year history of the sport, falcons were never bred," says Joe Piatt, 34, the falcon biologist who is director of the center. "No animal has been in such close association with man so long without being improved." Piatt received his doctorate from Cornell, where in 1973 falcons were first successfully bred in captivity, an achievement that caught the attention of the prince two years later. "He made inquiries about doing the same thing in Bahrain, and I've been here ever since," says Piatt. He gestures toward the center. It contains seven two-story, temperature-and light-controlled breeding chambers, each with a viewing window facing on a room where observers can sit on deep leather sofas and watch the birds through one-way glass. There are also rooms for incubating eggs and rearing young falcons, a complete veterinary hospital, library, kitchen, lounge and a backup generator in case of power failure.

"We have to control the light to duplicate the length of the day in the breeding grounds of Russia and Romania, where the saker hawks mate," says Piatt. "And of course the temperature.

"We got our first clutch of chicks in 1979, from a pair of Australian peregrines. And this year we've had six more. We're raising and training them now. It looks good for sakers, too, in 1981, so we're very excited."

The Arabs' ignorance about falcons, given the fact that they have hunted with the birds for 25 centuries, still amazes Piatt. "When I put male and female sakers in the cage, the old falconers who came to visit were shocked,' he says. "They'd thought for centuries that the larger female was a different species from the smaller male. To them, it was like putting a horse and a cow in the same stall. I had to show the prince pictures of the birds mating before he believed me."

Now the old falconers trust Dr. Joe, as Platt's called, enough to bring their ailing birds to him for treatment. "At first they were afraid of me, but after I'd cured a few birds, they all came," Piatt says. "Birds here are still treated with folk remedies, as people were not so long ago. If something hurts, you poke a hot iron at it. If a bird cuts its foot, they pour gas or oil on it, depending on whether it's bleeding. And falcons have a lot of nose trouble. Guys bring in birds that are breathing with a whistling sound, and when you question them, they tell you they've put a hot poker in the nostrils. But things are getting better."

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