Mauritius' horse loving history
It's known the world over as the sport of kings.
Horse racing, that is. But on the Indian Ocean tropical island of Mauritius it can aptly be called the sport of the masses.
Racing is big in Mauritius. In fact it is the second most popular sport after football in the nation.
Every Saturday afternoon, thousands of Mauritians flock to their picturesque race course in the capital Port Louis to punt on horses and to simply take part in the carnival that is racing.
The industry has been a part of Mauritius' history for two centuries. In fact, racing had defined the Mauritian character shortly after the first settlers pitched tent on the island.
It has a fascinating history behind it.
In the 10th century, Phoenicians, Malays, Swahili and Arab seamen visited the island but did not settle. Arab mariners named the island Dina Robin, a name carried today by one of the island's top holiday resorts.
In 1498, Portuguese explorers stumbled upon Mauritius in the wake of Vasco da Gama's voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in present day South Africa.
In 1598, the Dutch claimed the uninhabited island and renamed it after their head of state, Maurice, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau. Soon, a Dutch settlement was established on the island.
By 1710, the Dutch had withdrawn permanently to the Cape of Good Hope, and within five years the French East India Company claimed Mauritius for France.
In 1810, British forces landed in Mauritius after defeating the French in a battle at Cap Malheureux, and thus began the "cultural battle" between the French and the English in Mauritius.
Relations between French and English settlers became very poisonous, and it took the sport of horse racing to successfully broker a truce.
In 1812, English military officer Colonel Edward Alured Draper landed on the island. His aim was to win the friendship and co-operation of the defeated French population. He hit on the idea of inviting the "warring" French and English settlers in Mauritius for a horse racing meeting.
It was an instant success! On 25 June 1812, the Mauritius Turf Club was born and it had its first meeting on that day. It is a milestone Mauritians cherish.
The Port Louis race course is very proud of its place in history - the first in the southern hemisphere, and the second oldest in the world.
As the people of Mauritius count the days in the lead up to the bicentenary of their horse racing industry, they continue to keep alive the hopes of the club's founding fathers.
Today, Mauritius is one of the most multicultural nations on earth. The people are mainly of Indian, Tamil, Chinese, African, French and English descent.
Many Asian and African settlers were brought in by European colonisers to work on sugarcane plantations. Street language is French and African Creole, but English is the official language.
Mauritians note with great satisfaction that the different cultures have lived side by side on the island peacefully for decades.
And the one thing, among others, that binds them is racing. Like horse racing meetings anywhere in the world, there is the glamour, the hopes and disappointments. The amount of money bet on race meetings may not be as big as in Australia, but the carnival atmosphere is surely as happy as anywhere else.
The race course is well situated at the end of a prestigious avenue in Port Louis, the capital city. It is ensconced in a natural depression at the foot of charming hills, giving racegoers the impression of being in a huge amphitheatre.
On the day I attended a Port Louis race meeting, Australian jockey Shane Dye had a mount. Dye has been a top celebrity in Mauritius ever since he set up shop in the country last year.
He's not the only "international" jockey on the island. As the bicentenary of the Mauritius Turf Club approaches in 2012, the hope of many locals is that horse racing enthusiasts around the world will gallop to their tiny island to be part of racing history.
IF YOU GO
For further information see tourismmauritius.com.