The Arabian racing party is in full swing - now it's time to get a bit more serious

Aghsaan ridden by Paul Hanagan wins The Emirates Premier Handicap at the Dubai International Arabian Races, Newbury 26 July 2015.

The Americans have a saying - "it's difference of opinion makes horse racing". They have plenty of good sayings, but they use this one for all sorts of purposes: like which of two women is the better looking; whether steak should be eaten rare or actually bleeding, or just to try to end any debate that threatens to get out of hand. But as with most shrewd observations this one’s most apposite when applied to the subject that gave it rise.

It's more than 30 years now since Dubai, and in particular Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, began a campaign to promote Arabian racing in Britain. That should be long enough for the rest of us to judge the success or otherwise of his mission to popularise the sport he adores. These days the Dubaians are under challenge (not under threat, because the aims of both are identical) for leadership of the movement to raise the profile of Arabian racing, the sport that involves the precursors and progenitors of the Thoroughbred breed. But in spite of the weight of Qatari money now promoting some of the richest individual Arabian races around the world, there is no doubt that, as leading trainer of Arabians Julian Smart publicly agreed on July 26, the Dubai International Arabian Races (DIAR) at Newbury retain a special status.

Often referred to as "Arabian racing's equivalent of the Arc meeting", they remain the premier single day's racing anywhere in the world dedicated to Arabian racing as a stand-alone rather than as an adjunct to a major Thoroughbred meeting. The question is whether or not Newbury's annual jamboree is achieving Sheikh Hamdan's objectives declared three years ago in an interview with International Thoroughbred magazine. "The Arabian horse is part of my heritage," Sheikh Hamdan said then, "and that of my country and of the Middle East generally.

"I am keen to promote the racing of Arabian horses all over the world. The Arabian horse may not be quite as fast as the Thoroughbred, but it is much more beautiful." (Now there's a remarkable statement from a man who owns some of the finest of Thoroughbreds on earth). "We have sponsored Arabian races in Germany and France for many years and in Melbourne, Australia, to acquaint the Southern Hemisphere with the existence of the Arabian horse."

He added that the objectives were twofold. "First, to secure the future of the Arabian breed. Second, I like to think of the staging of Arabian racing as part of a wider education about Arabic culture and heritage."

The positives in this project are pretty obvious. First, the future of the Arabian breed is most definitely secure. The million-dollar championship events at the Dubai World Cup and the Arc meeting are evidence, as are the increased and increasing numbers of Arabian races 'tacked on' to Thoroughbred meetings of lesser grandeur. Second, the DIAR deliver plenty every year to the strengthening of goodwill towards Dubai and thereby the more battered regions of the Middle East in general.

Lovers of Arabian racing need to be realistic about this, though. These additional races have not come about because of any public clamour from Thoroughbred racing enthusiasts. On the contrary, they are still tolerated by the majority of Thoroughbred racing fans rather than looked forward to, and the still unabashed apathy of most bookmakers as well as low tote turnover reflect this. They owe their inclusion on Thoroughbred racing cards to rich sponsors, and without those sponsors Arabian racing would very probably return to the relative obscurity in which it found itself before the Maktoum family’s intervention.

Whether or not they share Sheikh Hamdan's opinion about the relative beauty of the two closely related breeds, very few lovers of any other sort of racing can now be ignorant, though, of the existence of the breed whose four founding fathers, when mingled with local British bloodstock, gave us of the Thoroughbred - and the extension of that knowledge is a triumph for the family that has striven to spread it. How much the Newbury event has contributed to the development of Arabian racing, though, and the extent to which it has recruited new fans to the sport is what is open to doubt.

A straw poll taken by one individual is hardly scientific, but conversations with about 20 racegoers at this year's meeting seem to indicate that the hoped-for great leap forward in terms of conversion of Thoroughbred racing fans, or just casual racegoers, to the joys of Arabian racing is still some way off.

The popularity of the meeting is strong, both among the organisers, including Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stud and the racegoers. But, without exception, the people button-holed for their opinions seemed to have little or no idea of what it was they were watching. These included those chosen specifically because they looked like regular racegoers. (And yes you can tell the difference: families with kids look, dress, and act quite differently from those who wear what you might call standard racing gear). The switch from random selection seemed only fair after four or five groups in succession admitted unashamedly that they were here for the free day out, the free goodie bags, the free face painting, the free henna hand decoration, and the free raffles for holidays in Dubai and - grand prize - a new car.

None of them, though, not even Mr. and Mrs. Broad from Newbury (smart jeans, dark jackets, leather hats) had much idea either, but, like Phil Belcher from Basingstoke (“We’re just here for fun," said his girlfriend happily) they smiled a lot and said they were having a great time. Not even the bookies - people you’d expect to be clued up if anyone was going to be - had any real idea of how to frame their markets. In short, very few racegoers or bookmakers came with any preconceptions about the likely outcomes of races.

Of course, the Arabian racing cognoscenti - the trainers, the owners, the jockeys, and the handful who have deliberately familiarised themselves with this still very much niche sport - knew exactly what was happening. But not one of the interviewees really knew the difference between the championship races and the handicaps. Not one said "I've come to watch xxxx ride, or to see xxxx run because I believe he's a champion". That’s not normal, not for any meeting, and certainly not for one that bills itself a sport's seasonal climax.

In effect, the Newbury DIAR, may be of huge significance to the few insiders, those professionally involved in what still thinks of itself as an amateur sport (more of that obvious contradiction another day). But, to the rest, to the ordinary racegoers who come through the gates without having to pay a cent, they are nothing more than a garden party with a race meeting attached. Or, in this case, more like a picnic.

This may not be a bad thing in itself. After all, it’s what King Edward VII is alleged to have said about Glorious Goodwood - and that meeting has more than survived the compliment. But, even in the days when King Edward said that, the average racegoer on the Sussex Downs would have had pretty firm opinions about the relative merits of the various horses on show. Even the picnickers who parked themselves free on Trundle Hill would have known. Surely that is the ingredient currently missing from Arabian racing’s gala day at Newbury.

In terms of the objectives of the organisers, the ignorance of the average attendee must be something of a disappointment, if not an actual indictment. It's all very well for people from the Newbury area, and a few from further afield, to turn up year after year essentially to enjoy Sheikh Hamdan’s hospitality - but if they are coming only for the fun, for the raffles and the game show-style presentation, the sport of Arabian racing does not necessarily benefit or grow at all.

On July 26, one of Arabian racing’s very few specialist commentators, Gary Capewell, gave a brief and informative seminar before racing began, and very efficient he was, as was whoever produced the words in the race card, because most of the results were predicted quite accurately and racegoers of the betting persuasion might have profited quite nicely as a result. But really most of the crowd were busy by that time tucking into burgers or queueing for the goodie bags. Very few took advantage of even what information was available - and, without information, no opinions can be formed.

But "it's difference of opinion makes horse racing". Logic would seem to dictate, therefore, that at least some of the expenditure on Newbury International Arabian day should be diverted to education. That means the production of an easily accessible form book: not just a few words, however well chosen, at the end of the list of runners; and a few minutes between races spent on discussion of the significance of each race as well as its likely result.

That doesn’t mean the relentless jollity should be done away with. Newbury regulars obviously enjoy it. But just a little space should be given to the sort of seriousness without which no form of racing can expect to flourish and win recruits.

How many were attracted this year? There is no way of gauging the size of the crowd because nobody has to pay or click turnstiles, but a semi-educated guess from one who’s been a few times before was around five or six thousand, not necessarily including VIPs and the personally invited. That’s not bad but hardly sensational considering the generosity lavished on those who do choose to show up. Of course, the Newbury meeting has had appalling luck with the weather. No matter where in the calendar they put it, the day seems to attract wind and rain of the sort you might expect in Tierra del Fuego at this time of year.

In 2015, Newbury wasn't quite the blasted heath it had been on some previous renewals, but the relative calm of the Sunday itself was preceded by the sort of weather that keeps people at home watching their game shows on the telly while fondling mugs of hot Bovril. In the circumstances 5-6,000 wasn't bad. At nearby Ascot the day before, after all, only 27,000 (admittedly paying) customers turned up - and that was while the unbeaten Derby winner Golden Horn was still scheduled to run in the King George.

Some day they're going to have what most people think of as a perfect English summer's day at Newbury (although, according to folklore, most of those were used up while Edward VII was still on the throne) and then we'll get a true indication of just how much the Sheikh's munificence has won over the local population.

That munificence was best demonstrated this year in the competition for local schools in which children are invited to paint models of Arabian horses. There are no losers. The least each school gets is £500. When one teacher was asked what her school would do with its £500, she replied that it would go towards buying iPads. Sheikh Hamdan immediately told her he would supply them. When another was asked what she would be doing with the £1,500 her school had won, she said it would go towards the £3,000 needed to buy a piano. Sheikh Hamdan provided the other half as well.

Cynics might say this is simply good PR, and in the context of the meeting's cost, not very expensive PR at that. But fake sincerity is not impossible to see through and there was no reason to doubt the sincerity here. Nobody leaves Newbury thinking any worse of Dubai. Sheikh Hamdan's goodwill and largesse guarantees that. In that respect, the meeting remains a great success, and no-one is suggesting a complete change of image. No-one wants it to become too earnest, too educational, too off-putting for its once-a-year clientele. Sheikh Hamdan wants it to have a party atmosphere. He enjoys it very much himself and demonstrates it with such gestures. Perennial host Derek Thompson may not be everyone's cup of mint tea, but the Americans have another wise saying: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Somehow or other, though, it needs to convey to its captive audience, seduced to the racecourse by the freebies and the raffles and the ho-ho-ho, the essence of the sport is exists to publicise. That can only be achieved by creating opportunities for differences of opinion.

View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus

More Racing Articles

By the same author