Child jockeys, big stakes on Indonesia's horse-racing island

Chris McCall

Waingapu (Indonesia) (AFP) - Umar Marampa is only 14, but he is already a veteran of horse races on an Indonesian island famed for its schoolboy jockeys who compete on sandy circuits with tiny steeds.

At a recent training session with a group of other riders in Sumba's main city of Waingapu, he put his stocky little horse through its paces, galloping around a track at breakneck speed.

Marampa began racing aged nine and is now relatively old for a Sumba jockey -- some start as young as five. Some of the youngsters were clearly struggling as they sought to control the feisty animals, which stomped around angrily before racing.

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"We start by climbing on horses in the hills. We learn by ourselves," Marampa told AFP, highlighting that horse-riding is deeply ingrained in the local culture of the poor, central Indonesian island, and a source of pride for the young jockeys.

Sumba is famous throughout Indonesia for its child jockeys and 'Sandel' horses named after the sandalwood that was once exported from the island.

The small, fast animals are found across the island, and are widely believed to be descended from steeds once ridden by the fierce Mongol warriors in war.

The influence of horses is everywhere -- one of the focal points of Waingapu is a statue showing boys riding horses, and ceremonial battles on horseback are played out every year, evoking ancient clashes between rival clans on the island.

Races are held frequently and are typically riotous affairs, with lots of illegal gambling and frequent fights when one punter's horse loses. Children occasionally fall from their horses and break limbs, although deaths are rare.

Police sometimes have to step in and cancel events but it would be difficult to axe them all. Not only are horses and horse-racing woven into the fabric of the arid island's local culture, large amounts of money are at stake.

- Big cash prizes -

Many local people have chosen to invest in racehorses, as cash prizes for important events are as much as 10 million rupiah (about $830) -- a huge amount in a country where many live on less than $2 a day.

As competition intensifies, larger horses, cross-breeds with Australian steeds, have started to appear. They tend to be taller and stronger, and do better.

Child rights activists have long been calling for the practice of youngsters racing to be banned but realise they face an uphill battle against local traditions.

"The worst part of all of this is that it puts children in danger," said Arist Merdeka Sirait, chairman of the national commission for child protection.

However local residents insist that precautions are taken to ensure the youngsters are well prepared before they start racing.

When jockeys reach their late teens, they generally retire, and some go on to train younger riders. The boys are slowly introduced to the race track, said Abraham Endruyan Wunu, a local teacher who assists with the training.

A ceremony based on local beliefs is also performed, which is aimed at ensuring they do not feel pain, he added.

However, most adults prefer being spectators to taking part. Civil servant Julianus Amahu said that, while he owns a racehorse himself, he would be reluctant to join a band of youngsters galloping with abandon round a track.

"I would be scared," the 42-year-old admitted.

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