Author: Howard Wright

ACCORDING to the musical website lyrics.com, there are 9,541 songs, covering 72 artists and 100 albums, which contain the words ‘money talks.’ They could make a theme tune for the Saudi Cup race meeting taking place at the King Abdulaziz racetrack in Riyadh in just over a fortnight’s time. Yet money alone cannot guarantee success; just ask anyone who has paid multi million dollars for a yearling, only to find it can hardly run fast enough to escape its own shadow. In terms of organising a prestige race meeting, success depends on several other factors, including a huge amount of logistical excellence.

The Dubai World Cup raceday, which arrives at the notable milestone of its 25th anniversary next month, is a particularly good example. It started well, thanks to sound planning, but has become better and better. Residual nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ at Nad Al Sheba has receded under the magnificence of Meydan. From a standing start, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia has put in the logistical miles, turning to expert professional help from around the world, and has been rewarded with an excellent acceptance of overseas runners. The likely fields are a tribute to the hard work that has gone into promoting the event, which will take racing in the kingdom to a whole new level.

The Equestrian Club of Riyadh is seeking to fulfil the Jockey Club’s stated vision, ‘to attain international excellence in horseracing through developing this sport’, and its mission ‘to provide patronage for horseracing in a creative way that is also supported by a high level of modern technology and the setting up of effective local and international partnerships’. For so long, Saudi Arabia has been a closed book among the majority of international horseracing followers, despite the success enjoyed by Saudi-born or based owners around the world, most notably Khalid Abdullah, whose winning tally stretches from the small acorn of the first, Charming Native at Windsor in 1979, to the mighty oak of dual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Enable, with the outstanding Dancing Brace and the peerless Frankel along the way.

However, their exploits on the international stage have done little or nothing to open up the world’s eyes to horseracing in Saudi Arabia, which in a formalised fashion is a relatively modern phenomenon. The Saudi Cup meeting will alter that perspective beyond all recognition. Two dates stand out in the history of Saudi Arabian horseracing: 1965, when the Equestrian Club of Riyadh was formed and an enclosed racetrack was built in the district of Al Malaz to the south west of Riyadh; and 2003, when racing moved to the present site and the new King Abdulaziz racetrack in the district of Al Janadriyah on the north eastern outskirts of the capital. To those historic dates must now be added 2020, when the Saudi Cup, worth a total of $20 million, will become the world’s richest race.

In that respect it overtakes the Dubai World Cup’s $12m prize fund, although the DWC programme will remain the most valuable single raceday in the international calendar, offering a total of $35m compared to Saudi Arabia’s which is just over $29m. To get to that stage the organisers of the Saudi Cup meeting have had to do a lot of catching up, and quickly. Top international jockeys are a fairly frequent sight in Riyadh, and King Abdulaziz racecourse has for several years enjoyed a reputation among riders and visiting officials for having one of the best dirt racing surfaces in the world. However, other aspects were not geared to staging a festival at the standard of other major jurisdictions.

Getting up to speed has meant installing a turf track in less than five months, which drew favourable comments at its initial trials, as well as tackling issues of quarantine and rules to prevent raceday medication, not to mention making arrangements for the participation of women jockeys. On a more general topic, Saudi Arabia’s recent introduction of e-visas has considerably smoothed the passage for visitors. Putting on a valuable raceday with lofty ambitions has advanced all these worthy developments, but, as one of the driving forces behind the initiative, Jockey Club chairman Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, pointed out recently, this is just the beginning.

“We hope this is a first step, with many steps in the future,” he said. “To me it adds to the world class events in this part of the world that will get people engaged in the sport. It says a lot that people have confidence. Many of them know this part of the world, having been racing here for a long time, so it’s not an ‘all new’ destination. “Having the opportunity to compete here is what’s new for these owners and trainers. I’m really happy with the level of entry, whether it is the Saudi Cup itself or all of the undercard races. What we will be looking at in the future is to move it up several levels.” One huge plus is the expected participation of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, which has six nominations among the overseas acceptors, including Turgenev, trained by John Gosden.

The UAE’s other four acceptors include Dee Ex Bee, owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, whose regard for equestrianism in Saudi Arabia was confirmed the other week, when he won the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Endurance Cup at Al Ula, with his father in attendance. The door to greater integration of racing among Gulf nations seems to be ajar, especially as Prince Bandar commented: “I look forward to the day when we have three or four major races during the season here, and also adding big races during the summer, because we can do that, unlike other parts of the Arabian peninsula. “We are also engaged in talks with our colleagues in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain to really have a coordinated season that would serve the interests of the owners and trainers, so you can build momentum in this part of the world. It would be an important addition to horseracing across the world.”

Kuwait and Oman could also be encouraged to become part of the holistic thinking, and although the present concentration of weekend racing in the Gulf will not simplify a totally integrated approach, a degree of consolidated race programming would be a major advance. As for racing during the summer, King Khalid racetrack at Taif, a quiet agricultural town in Saudi Arabia’s mountainous region, races twice a week from the middle of June to the beginning of August, and could make a tantalising prospect for UAE owners looking to extend their season.

Howard Wright

Saudi Cup could spark regional coordination