International Thoroughbred and Arabian racing enjoyed a day in the sun in Qatar on Saturday, with some high-calibre action and an impressive roster of equine and human participants from across the globe. TRC’s George Dudley reports from a sovereign state that has sport and education at the core of its modern development.
With temperatures plummeting in Europe as stormy weather thrashes the continent, it was no surprise to see such a large contingent of English and French competing at the three-day HH The Amir Sword Festival in Qatar at the weekend.
A temperature of 27 degrees C and a cooling sea breeze seemed to be the perfect oasis for the European horsemen. However, this was not an expats’ jolly in the sun, with many wizened onlookers saying that the ambience, intimate modern track and progressive international racing reminded them of “Dubai in the early days” (before the fireworks and concerts became commonplace).
As well as trainers such as Epsom Derby winner Michael Bell and Prix de Diane scorer Henri-Alex Pantall, and top-30 jockeys Mickael Barzalona, Pierre-Charles Boudot and Oisin Murphy, there was a strong local presence.
It was once again indigenous owners - Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Khalifa Al Thani – whose silks were carried to victory in the two $1 million features races at Al Rayyan Park on Saturday.
Champions reign supreme again
The penultimate race of Saturday’s card – played out in front of the Amir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani – was the G1 HH The Amir Trophy, which was presented by luxury watch brand and long-time racing supporter Longines.
Last year’s winner, the Pantall-trained French King, was expected by many to repeat the trick, despite a recent ninth-place finish in unfavourable ground in last year’s Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, but the Graham Motion-trained Standard Deviation and French entrant Pedro Cara represented realistic threats to Sheikh Abdullah‘s globetrotter.
Any thoughts of an upset were quickly stamped out by an authoritative ride from Olivier Peslier, who took the 5-year-old son of French Fifteen to the front of the field from the outset, a position that he wouldn’t relinquish for most of the 2400 meters.
Doha, Qatar’s capital, is known for its futuristic skyscrapers and other ultra-modern architecture inspired by ancient Islamic design, all of which can be seen dominating the skyscape from the stands. It is also a nation that is fiercely proud of its history, albeit a relatively short one, and that was on show between races: special match races contested by enthusiastic young Qatari jockeys in traditional dress, flag-carrying riders galloping in procession for the Amir, and a unique ‘horse whisperer’ captivating audiences with three horses engaging natural dressage.
A flood of national pride was also evident in the final race, the G1 PA HH The Amir Sword. A ten-runner field that included many of the world’s best Arabian purebreds, most notably Ebraz, Khataab, Tayf and Yazeed, first, second, fourth and fifth in the G1 Qatar Arabian World Cup at ParisLongchamp last October.
The Julian Smart-trained Ebraz, owned by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Thani, showed late pace on the long home straight to win the race for the third time and take the Triple Crown, having won at Goodwood and Longchamp last year, winning connections receiving a further $1 million as a result.
French champion jockey Maxime Guyon managed to find a gap between two pace-setters and timed his drive perfectly on Ebraz to pull away before easing to a victory with a length and three quarters to spare.
Murphy’s belated joy, Doyle’s disappointment
British champion Oisin Murphy, who his accruing more stamps in his passport than most diplomats this winter, won his first race in the home of his paymasters (he is retained by Qatar Racing) at the 27th time of asking.
“I’m thrilled,” said Murphy. “It’s my first winner in Qatar and I'm pleased and relieved more than anything else to finally get off the mark here. It’s mad really. This is my third year but I haven’t been able to buy a winner in the past.
“My statistics here prior to today did not make for pretty reading!”
Conversely, young British jockey Hollie Doyle did not have such a memorable day. Her mount, the much-fancied Maystar, found the going too quick in the Al Biddah Mile, and she picked up a four-day suspension for careless riding. The ban will be reciprocated in Britain.