Photo essay: A day at the races in Gonbad-e Kavus

A photographic trip to the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, a small, hot, and dusty town in the Golestan province in northern Iran.

 

The horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus have been going on for centuries, and the track in Gonbad was once considered to be the greatest track in the Middle East. That title has since been lost, but the Gonbad region is still famous for its horse breeding.

The horseraces at Gonbad-e Kavus

A popular pastime in an otherwise quiet town, the horse races are attended by a melting pot of people from all over the region. Turks, Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis, Tajiks and more all come together under the sweltering sun to watch the races in Gonbad’s hippodrome every Friday in spring and fall.

People of all ethnicities coming out to watch the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

When we entered, the grounds around the hippodrome were teeming with life, both human and horse. Cars were parked every which way, providing shade for men as they smoked hookahs and sipped tea. Makeshift horse stalls were guarded by their watchful owners, and lone horses stood amongst them, tethered to the ground.

Men sitting outside a horse stall at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran

Constant vigilance!

Some horses were restless, ready to release their energy on the track, while others looked as though they would be lucky to survive another 5 minutes of the heat.

A horse tied to the ground at the hippodrome in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran

“I totally love being wrapped up like a hot dog and left out in the sun to die. At least they were kind enough to muzzle me with my food bucket first.”

Stablehands darted to and fro, leading fresh horses to an arena to show them off to the crowds before leading them into the hippodrome.

A stable hand leading a horse at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus

The onlookers pressed themselves up against the fenced perimeter of the arena, silently assessing each horse and wondering if it was worth their hard-earned cash.

Horses being shown outside the hippodrome in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran

A boy watching the horses at the races in Gonbad Kavus, Iran

After navigating our way through the circus outside, we entered the hippodrome. The shadows of the grandstands were packed with people, all jostling to hide from the scorching heat of the sun.

Men hiding in the shade at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

“Remind me why we’re squatting in the sun again?” “Dude, I don’t know. It’s way too hot to be asking me questions.”

Old men lounged about, contentedly licking saffron ice creams, while younger men squirmed with anticipation, looking over neighbors shoulders to score a peek at their betting sheets.

Man tracking his bets at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran

Gangs of young boys raced through the crowds, hooting and whistling at each other as they all quested to find the best vantage point to watch the races.

Young boys watching the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran

A boy standing on a motorcycle to get a view of the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

Staking out the prime real estate ahead of the crowds.

Finally, the jockeys and their mounts were escorted out, to be paraded on the track before the onlookers.

The jockeys and their rides being displayed before the race at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

Come one, come all!

Men emerged from the safety of the shade to scrutinize the horses and their riders, hoping to glean some last-minute insights before placing their final bets.

Men scrutinizing a horse at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

A horse being shown to the crowd at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

“Whatcha think? Should I bet my wife’s paycheck on this one?”

The jockeys trotted their horses about to warm them up, then migrated to the starting gate. Clearly, the race was about to begin: the crowd surged forward from the shadows, pushing and shoving to get the best views of the track. Children scrambled above the crowds, carefully perching like birds atop the fences. The scorching rays of the sun were temporarily forgotten as people looked on in anticipation.

Children watching on at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

You snooze, you lose, old people.

Finally, the gates flew open, and the riders were off! People held their breath in excitement and anticipation.

Horses coming around the corner at the horse races at Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

… and they’re coming ’round the corner…

Horses racing in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

Who will it be?

Riders finishing a race in front of a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

Streaking past under the watchful eye of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

The moment the first horse crossed the finish line, the tension snapped and the air filled with a mixture of cheers and groans. Those with better foresight would cackle and exchange high-fives, while the less fortunate betters would grumble and quickly pull out their sheets to calculate their losses. Clusters formed in the crowds as bills changed hands…

Paying out bets at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

… and people flocked to place new bets.

People placing bets at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

Just another day at the races in Gonbad-e Kavus!

Horse being led at the races in Gonbad Kavus, Iran

 

The horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus make for a great day trip. There are beautiful horses, crazy people, and super cheap (and delicious) saffron ice cream to help you cope with the sun. What more could you need? If you’re interested in visiting the horse races yourself…

Important information about the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus

  • The Hippodrome opens around 13:00, but the first race doesn’t start until about 14:30
  • Races go on during spring and fall–we’re not sure exactly when they start or end
  • A ticket to the races is 50,000 IRR per person
  • Gorgan is the closest major city to Gonbad-e Kavus. Check our report on how to get from Gorgan to Gonbad-e Kavus

 

Ever been to a horse race? How about a race in Iran? Here's a photo essay about visiting the horse races in the town of Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran.

 

 

Quick camera tip: Want to start taking photos like this yourself? Don’t know where to start? People always ask me what camera I use, so I’ll answer here. I always carry a Nikon D7100 camera, and I absolutely swear by my Nikon 18-200mm lens. There’s also a Canon version, of course. A tip for aspiring photographers: when buying a camera, the body is not so important–it’s the lens quality that matters most! The 18-200mm is a quality lens, and allows for wide-angle shots and telephoto zoom. Say goodbye to dust in your camera–you’ll never have to switch your lens on the road ever again!

Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex Reynolds

4 thoughts on “Photo essay: A day at the races in Gonbad-e Kavus

    I enjoyed reading this – you really went off the beaten path here 🙂 I’ve often seen these horse races in documentaries about Afghanistan and Iran, but it’s interesting to read about them from a traveller’s perspective. It seems to be a men-only event, so I’m curious… were you the only woman there? These photos are great, by the way.

    Thanks. We really enjoyed going there, it was definitely an experience. There were a lot of men, but there was a women and kids section in the stands. I don’t think there were more than five ladies sitting there though. Luckily Iranians are really friendly, so there wasn’t any harassment or weird stares. They were also to busy with placing best to really care about us 😉

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