From Daily News, 3 January 2013
Juliet Coombe took a gamble on entering the forts inner sanctum, the Galle Fort betting shops in the heart of popular pedlars street. From early morning to late afternoon, men scurry in and out of the betting houses on Galle Fort’s popular Pedlar street, where you can find little old men studying the racing pages of the papers as if for a major exam, all part of the exciting bookie business world, which varies from day to day.
In between people placing their bets, the owners normally spend their mornings gluing the spines of the various different versions of The Racing Post with a pencil-shaped piece of wood, so that the pages are sealed together making them easier documents for his customers to negotiate. Piles of these papers are delivered every morning at 5.30am from the head booking office in Galle, who he works under.
Comic and charming: There is something comic and even charming about the idea of Fort men sitting in this little shop speculating on whether Red Dragon will win the day’s race at Cheltenham in England. The time delay adds an additional element of comedy to the outsider considering that it may still be the middle of the night in England. However, the interest amongst the older generation may partly be due to the fact that horse racing was once an important aspect of Fort culture and only came to an end after the Second World War, when the likes of Hilali Nordeens family a surgeon that lives at no 89, Leyn Baan Street.
A family, whose eyes still fill with excitement when they talk about the sound of hooves drumming in the ears along the old cobbles, contours of muscles stretching, dust flying and an eager murmur swathing the racing ground in front of the 409 year old fort walls a blanket of expectation.
One of the figures in the crowd of Galle’s old horse racing ground would have been the young Hilali Noordeen watching his family horses winning race after race; a memory which he has kept firmly in his mind as he spent his childhood holidays visiting his family in Galle. Hilali still owns all of the horse racing trophy cups that his relations won over the years and a historic house opposite the mosque.
However, they weren’t just successful racers. Hilali, after years of study, which included a spell at New College Oxford, is now a top UK surgeon. However, he makes sure that he finds the time to visit his Fort house regularly, particularly if Sri Lanka is playing England in the cricket. He feels very privileged to live opposite the Mosque, and enjoys being a part of the Islamic culture, which he sees as the nearest thing in Asia to an example of living history and a place he would like to see a museum created to record this fascinating trading history.
Strong ties: The Noordeen family like so many other traders in fort is originally from Yemen and probably arrived in Galle as a gem and spice merchant. For this reason he feels a very strong tie to the Fort way of life. Although he has travelled the world, lived and worked in numerous countries, Hiliali Noordeen still feels most at home in this ancient walled citadel built from coral and seashells. The house at 89, Leyn Baan Street has a simplistic yet beautifully rendered interior. One of the rooms boasts an entire wall made from thousands of coral stones, which is a stunning example of old wall-building craftsmanship. The house unusually has three roofs, as different buildings have been amalgamated together over the centuries. One of the most notable owners was an old lighthouse keeper who could have dashed home for a cup of tea and a bowl of rice and curry within a few minutes. The front of the house with its slanting ceiling and stable-like doors makes one think that this was once a coach house, home to horses which would have carried wealthy gentlemen along the Fort’s network of winding back streets. Hilali Noordeen is honoured to be part of the Fort community and relishes its sensitive and peaceful nature like Mr Gunesekara who is another character you can bet on for an interesting tale about this ancient citadel.
Wins and losses: Ironically the owner of the main betting shop is not a betting man, and has probably witnessed too many losses to tempt him into this precarious hobby. He feels that the profession suits his age, as the shop is attached to his house and is easily manageable. He operates a simple set up with small clipboards full of yellow paper on his desk, ready for the placing of bets, and wooden blue sideboards around the room to sit at and peruse the day’s temptations and opportunities.
With a streak of white, setting glue across his cheek, one of the betting shop owners face breaks into a grin and lights up showing white sparkling teeth when asked about the record profits and losses made in his shop. The biggest win was in 2007 when one of his regulars, an expert in the field won three lakhs (around 3,000US dollars) from a bet of 1,500 rupees (around 15US dollars).
When asked about losses his grin becomes even wider and he ambiguously replies: “sometimes.” When probed further he reveals that in 1995 another of his regular clients lost a devastating four and a half lakhs (around 4,500US dollars). One of these highly intelligent, studious, adrenalin junkies is always sitting in the shop, pain-stakingly pouring over the statistics and figures. They are often retired professionals who seem to crave the mental stimulation and buzz that is involved.
A self-contained, serious looking man sits quietly on a stall in immense concentration, barely moving, apart from perhaps to rub his bare feet together in thought. He has a smart, short haircut, and wears a loose striped shirt over his sarong. The atmosphere in this corner of the room is no different or less intense than an exam room. Fortunately, the mood is a lot lighter around the betting desk as he is free of the addiction, happy to be apart from it, choosing only to indulge in his menial gluing tasks.
Each day a handful of Fort men retire to their homes, with a day’s wages, a round tour trip or their family fortune hanging in the balance, waiting desperately for morning when thy will discover whether a horse thousands of miles away has brought them luck or lost them their family fortune. Talking to them on the rampart walls I discover the love of horse race betting is an activity left over from British rule pre Independence in 1948. Today they also bet on safer activities such as cricket matches and with one of the worlds best teams it’s impossible not to be a winner in a fort that over looks a cricket ground that was once the site of some of the finest horse racing in Asia.