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Off to the Races in Aceh’s Gayo

BY SCOTT BRODY (THE JAKARTA GLOBE)

The Gayo horse races are a biannual tradition in Central Aceh - LINTASGAYO.COM PHOTO
Takengon, TAG – In the final two days of the Gayo horse races commemorating the 436th birthday of the city of Takengon in Central Aceh last month, glory and tradition were, at least in theory, outpacing money.


As the jockeys wrangled their horses into the starting gate for a semifinal heat, Masrul, a 54-year-old coffee farmer clad in oversized Ray-Bans and a red felt beret, cheered for a chestnut filly named Isabel. Her jockey was a barefoot teenager riding bareback.
A field of 315 racehorses divided into 10 classes based on age and size had been competing during the week-long competition from Feb. 18 to 24.
A flamboyant racetrack regular, Masrul has been attending traditional Gayo horse races since he was in elementary school.
“I’m proud to be here,” he said. “These races are a very important part of Gayo culture.”
Having traditions, language and a cultural identity distinct from the Acehnese, the Gayo people live in the Gayo highlands, spanning the Bener Meriah, Central Aceh and Gayo Lues districts of Aceh province.
Held biannually — once during the third week of February for Takengon’s birthday and again in August to celebrate Indonesian independence — the horse races are an immensely popular local tradition that are now drawing spectators from beyond the northern Sumatran mountains.
Khalisuddin, secretary of the organizing committee for this February’s races, estimates 30,000 people from Aceh, other provinces in Indonesia and foreign countries attended the last two days of the competition.
“All the hotels in Takengon were full,” he said.
Sitting on a plateau encircled by mountain ridges, the Haji Muhammad Hasan Gayo Race Grounds resembled a county fair, complete with children’s rides, a ring toss and fried meat on sticks. Vendors were hawking snake fruit, T-shirts, cutlery and miracle teeth whitener, as families ate picnic lunches beneath tarps strung up on the racetrack railing. For many, a day at the races is as much about buying, selling and playing as it is about watching the horses.
“There’s no doubt the races are very good for the economy of Takengon,” Khalisuddin said.
They also draw notoriety. Seated on a tented platform overlooking the track, like a king and his retinue at a joust, were the Central Aceh district head, the minister for administrative reform and a slate of other honored guests.
The announcer called out the names of the three horses in the semifinal, and Masrul hollered again for Isabel. Like the majority of the field, she was imported from Down Under, an Australian-Gayo or “Astaga.” Local Gayo horses are only the size of ponies.
The white flag came down, and the horses bolted from the gate, their jockeys whipping furiously. The dust hadn’t cleared before whooping men and boys spilled over the infield railing onto the track.
Isabel got out to an early lead and refused to relinquish it. She blew past the post, and the jockey threw his whip into the crowd. Masrul smiled. He turned to a fellow spectator who discreetly passed him a Rp 100,000 ($10) note via a handshake. Several other people in the gallery were also shaking hands.
Aceh is governed by Shariah law, and a prominent sign outside the race grounds cites gambling as a violation punishable by lashing. According to Win Nur, a Gayonese businessman who also watched the races as a young boy, betting has long been a part of the Gayo horse racing tradition.
“It’s just a part of the culture,” he said.
On the track, the barefoot teenage jockey led Isabel to the honored guest platform. The mayor’s wife stepped down to shake his hand and gave him an envelope containing a small honorarium. The cash prize for a champion is slight, only around Rp 5 million. What matters is the big trophy.
“These races are about prestige,” Win said.
Takengon sprawls out from the western shore of Lake Laut Tawar, Aceh’s largest freshwater body.
Outside of town, the landscape yields verdant paddy terraces and mountainsides blanketed by dark green Arabica coffee trees.
Regarded by some experts as Indonesia’s finest coffee, Gayo Arabica has become a favorite in the global specialty market for its distinct taste and fine aroma. It is the economic lifeblood of the Gayo highlands. According to the Central Aceh Plantations and Forestry Office, around 90 percent of people in the district depend on the coffee trade to put food on their tables.
Historically, horses have also been integral to the local Gayo economy.
“Whether for hauling things or for traveling to neighboring villages, horses have always been an important part of life for the Gayo people,” Khalisuddin said.
Though horse racing is a Gayo tradition, organized races in Takengon were first held by the Dutch colonial administration in 1912 to celebrate the birthday of Queen Wilhelmina. The roots of horse racing in the region prior to that, however, are unclear.
On the bank of Lake Laut Tawar opposite Takengon sits Bintang, a fishing village where late Gayo historian A.R. Hakim Aman Pinan believes villagers held horse races as part of annual rice harvest celebrations. The winners were esteemed and enjoyed elevated status in the community.
Another version of history holds that prior to the Dutch takeover there were no organized races, but rather young men from the villages surrounding the lake would capture wild ponies and compete in spontaneous races with one other — earning regional pride for their villages with each victory.
Starting in 1956, the Central Aceh government took over the races and fixed the date to coincide with Indonesian independence.
In recent years, the Astaga horses have been brought in and corporate sponsors obtained. Seven years ago the races were moved outside the city to the larger Haji Muhammad Hasan Gayo Race Grounds, allowing for greater attendance and economic activity.
In the finals, Isabel and her barefoot jockey raced against four other fillies. Again she took the lead, and again she didn’t give it up. As the jockey lifted the trophy, he smiled, glowing with pride. Masrul too shared in the prestige as he left the grounds after another year at the races.[]

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Off to the Races in Aceh’s Gayo Off to the Races in Aceh’s Gayo Reviewed by Nurdin Hasan on March 06, 2013 Rating: 5

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