TEMPO.CO, Sumbawa - Rain did not fall on the Angin Laut racetrack in Penyaring village, one day in this past October. That was a good sign for fans of Maen Jaran, the traditional horse racing in Sumbawa Island. Soon the race would start. Masrawang, 75, a racehorse owner from Ai Puntuk village, had been preparing since morning. The old man was also known as sanro-the local vernacular for a shaman.
As the sun rose, Masrawang whispered some mantras over the heads of two boys and sprinkled them with holy water. The pair were jockeys, preparing to ride Masrawang's horses. This was why he was performing the bejiwa ritual, to unite the spirits of the beasts and the jockeys. "The ritual anticipates any attack of 'black magic' in the arena by a rival," he told Tempo. Black magic can make a jockey fall from his horse, or set the horse running in the wrong direction.
In Sumbawa, boys of five to 12 years old are chosen as jockeys because the ponies are so small, only about 1.2 meters tall. The boys' diminutive frames allow the horses to run their fastest.
It is easy to recognize the little jockeys. They wear face protectors, plastic helmets, and pants and T-shirts made of jersey. Some brandish whips. Around their waists are tied pieces of black cloth for a belt upon which is printed Malaynized Arabic characters, considered a special amulet.
By 10am, the arena was packed with about 300 people. The entrance ticket was cheap, just Rp5,000 a head. Five racehorses were led into the starting booths. For good luck, each horse was led in a circle around its jockey-once, twice, three times. Then the sanros hoisted the jockeys onto the saddles.
Around 60 horses competed. It took almost an hour to set everything up. There were rebellious horses that did not want to get into the starting booth. Some jockeys hurt their knees from hitting the fence of the booth. A few racehorses started prematurely.
It was 11AM before the first round started. Each time the booth door opened, five horses dashed forward. Spectators shouted in frenzy, yelling their horse's names. The jockeys clung on firmly to their steeds' necks with one hand. Their other hand held the whip.
All the while, the sanros murmured their mantras. The spectators too were restive. About half of them were gambling, betting anywhere from Rp 50,000 to Rp 5 million. Their may have been hundreds of millions of rupiah in circulation.
For those without the cash to place bets, moneylenders were available-provided the gamblers put something up as collateral. "My friend once lost a bet and had to give away his motorbike," said Jade, 25, one of the spectators.
Victory is pride. "If my horse wins the race, everyone on Sumbawa will be talking about it," Masrawang said. "My name will be famous everywhere . That is what I seek."
Full coverage of the story can bee seen in Tempo English Weekly Magazine published on December 16, 2013.