Boy Racers of Saigon

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Phu may be only nine years old, but he knows the meaning of speed. Jabbing his spurs into the flanks of his tiny horse he sails past the finishing line only inches ahead of his friends. They are equally young, equally animated and, very nearly, equally as fast. Phu may only be nine years old, but this is no game. Thousands of dollars are placed in bets on the outcome of this horse race and Phu is a professional.

 This is Saigon, Vietnam and Phu is a throwback to the glory days of French Indo China. This whole place is art deco in motion. In an elegant but crumbling stadium that has survived years of wars and revolutions and decades of neglect child jockies race a breed of miniature horses introduced to Vietnam by the French. The dimensions of the participants are lilliputian and as they emerge from the initial weight checks and walk past the spectators they present a peculiar spectacle. Tiny, proud, little men making their way to the paddock.

Once there, fathers and uncles help them into the saddle. Mothers gossiping and joking shaded by the brims of conical hats sit to the side passing out snacks of fermented pork and fresh baguette sandwiches. The jockeys may be children, but the are not exploited. They are treasured.

All the competitors and horses live in the same village, just outside Saigon, and theirs is a shared fate that mirrors that of the nation. During the Vietnam War many civilians fled to the surrounding countryside and joined up with the Vietcong, fighting the Americans and the Saigon forces. Others, meanwhile, went on to serve in the southern forces, while some families even hedged their bets over the final outcome and sent a son to each army. That was a fate suffered by Phu’s two uncles.

The ravages of war and the initial harshness of the communist regime put an end to the fun at the races, but with growing liberalisation the residents of Saigon are, once again, free to enjoy the adrenaline of the race and the illicit the pleasures of gambling. “I have ridden horses ever since I can remember,” Phu says as he mounts his charge. “My father did when he was a boy. He told me to do my best now, because in a few years I’ll be too old and heavy to race.”

The idea that in only a couple of years he will be too old to race obviously troubles Phu. Unfortunately, the little horses can only cope with the lightest of charges. Even pint-sized Phu’s diet of rice and noodles will be too much for the animals as he grows older. “That’s my best friend there and here’s my cousin,” Phu says, pointing at two riders close by.

All the boys train with each other during the week when they are not at school. Come rain, shine, pestilence and frequent floods, the boys dedicate all their spare time to the race. The jokes and laughter end as the race approaches. The boys may be relatives, but they are also deadly competitors.

The adrenaline is high but the stakes are not. 2,000 dong (about 9p) is the usual amount pressed into into the hands of roving touts and glum-looking state-employed bookies sitting behind rusting wire mesh windows. Never mind. Gambling is still strictly forbidden by the Communist Government in Vietnam – except at the Saigon races. Even a small stake can raise Vietnamese passions to fever pitch in the 90-degree heat.

As the horses emerge in front of the stadium, It is more like watching charioteers at the Circus Maximus than children racing horses in Saigon’s district 10. As the riders move into the starting gate the passions of the crowds rise to a crescendo. Many break into a run, making for the outer fences to get the best views, eyed by surly Vietnamese police who make little or no effort to control the mayhem. Ringing the course’s dusty track is a wire fence intended, it is said, to thwart spectators trying to influence a race by throwing stones at the horses. Punters climb on anything available to get a better view. They throng the roof of the stadium and perch precariously on motorbikes and tables.

With a startling crack the gates are flung open and Phu and his friends fly far beyond the metal cage, careering on to the track with what looks like dangerous abandon. They kick up clouds of dust as they fly around the bends, the crowd bellowing encouragement.

The race is intense and fast. In the searing heat neither the horses nor the pint sized riders can cope with a long race. Phu is not the winner. Disappointment is etched on his face as his uncle helps him dismount, but he holds his head high as he walks to the pavilion to change out of his racing silks. His mum hands hims some mineral water, helps him to remove his hard hat and sits him down in front of a bowl of noodle soup. As his uncle leads the family horse away on his bicycle, Phu stares down miserably contemplating his noodles.

By Phu’s estimate he has about another 18 months before he is too heavy to race. He has won before and he desperately wants to win again. So each weekend he will return to the track and go through the same ritual of make or break speed. For the next eighteen months Phu will live for the race.

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