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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Red Rum Fuels Racing Dreams

NIAMEY, Niger -- With four legs and a name like Red Rum, millions of bettors around the world might have been tempted to take a chance.


But in the West African state of Niger, the stallion from Nigeria named after one of Britain's best-loved race horses, took local tipsters completely by surprise.


Red Rum, the smallest horse in the field, left the six other runners standing to storm home by five lengths in the main race on the card on Sunday afternoon -- the 2,500 meters.


"No-one thought he would win. Everyone thought that he was too small. Yet he led from start to finish," meet organizer Adama Conte said.


Traditional chiefs have been breeding fine horses all over the Sahel for centuries, but poverty and lack of infrastructure have proved a major drawback to development of the "Sport of Kings" in the region.


Last weekend's race meeting, billed as The Sub-Region's First Horseracing Championship, is part of Conte's dream of promoting racing and breeding in West Africa.


Conte, a rice merchant, says he wanted to make horse racing more popular in West Africa but he has a more ambitious goal.


"My aim is to enable African horses to compete in Europe and even beyond," he adds. "It would be nice to bring on the best horses in Africa. They could then run in France or even in the United States."


The best horses from Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Mali gathered in the capital of this dirt-poor, landlocked state on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert to contest races from 1,000 to 2,500 meters. Ghana sent observers.


The 2,500 meters was the highlight of the meeting at the Niamey Hippodrome. "It's the most important race because it is the longest and the most difficult," said Conte.


The original Red Rum, three times winner of the Grand National, the world's most famous steeple chase, died last year at the age of 30. He was buried by the Grand National winning post at Aintree in northwest England. This year's Grand National is on Saturday.


Red Rum II, jet black with a white blaze on his forehead, is coming up to seven years old.


Ridden by jockey Dan Tawa, the stallion broke the course record with a time of three minutes one second. The previous record of three minutes five seconds had been set in October at a trial run for this month's meeting. Around 10,000 people turned out for Sunday's finals. Earlier qualifying races were held on March 16 and 17.


Several countries in the region have race courses but there is limited scope for competition against horses from outside.


"Horses in Niger and other countries in the Sahel region are competitive," says Niger breeder Alkassoum Saley, 42, one of whose horses finished third in the 2,000 meters.


He is philosophical about the problems facing West African breeders. "Horses in the region lack a proper diet to achieve the height, strength and endurance of racehorses," he says.


But he is keen to develop his horses further. "These competitions enable us to appreciate the respective merits of the horses and to discuss ways of improving their performance."


Horses from host Niger dominated the other races.


Conte said the next meet would be in neighboring Mali in the coming months, with a future meet possibly taking place in Morocco. No precise dates have been agreed.


"We want this competition to develop into a glorification of African horse racing and breeding," Alkassoum said. "We will work to organize this kind of meet in every country in the region."


Niger's military leader, Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who seized power in a coup in January, presented the Head of State's Cup, the winning trophy, to Red Rum II's jockey, Dan Tawa, along with 600,000 CFA francs ($1,200) in prize money.


The owner of the horse, which is from Kano in northern Nigeria, is David Lee.


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Moscow racing fans will be able to follow the Grand National live via satellite at Metelitsa casino on Novy Arbat. There will be a four-hour simulcast beginning at 4 p.m. (MT)