Saudi Cup ‘first of many initiatives’ likely as top-class racing builds momentum in the Middle East

Passing the first test: the four horses who took part in the turf track trial on Wednesday run past the grandstand at King Abdualziz Racetrack. The riders are, from left: James Doyle, William Buick, Frankie Dettori and Danny Tudhope. Photo: Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia hopes to become a bigger player on the international racing stage, particularly within the Arab peninsula, with the $20 million Saudi Cup and supporting card just the first of a number of planned big races.

While creating the world’s richest race was going to have considerable appeal to the top U.S. dirt horses, there was little to attract runners from Europe, and in time Australasia, to the King Abdulaziz racetrack in Riyadh without a turf track.

So Wednesday’s successful trial of a course which had not been put down at the time of the race meeting’s launch last year was welcomed by Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia.

“To have a truly international event, we had to have a good turf course,” he said. “We were a little bit apprehensive in the beginning but we managed to put together a really good team and I think today was the first real trial and the feedback from all the jockeys was very encouraging. Now all we have to do is put up a good race at the end of the month.

“This is the first of many initiatives. I look forward to the day when we have three or four major races during the season here and adding also 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 and 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 horse racing across the world.”

The Saudi Cup meeting will cover two days, with the meeting opening on February 28, which will feature the Kingdom Day Jockeys’ Championship, which will be contested by two teams of riders, one male, one female.

The $20m Saudi Cup will be the highlight on dirt the following day with the $2.5m Red Sea Turf, a long distance handicap, the richest of three turf races.

“As far as I know this is the first time where you will have a race where half the jockeys are female and half male,” said Prince Bandar. “We are planning on really introducing the local media and local enthusiasts to these jockeys and have them rooting for their favourite jockey, whether male or female. The horses and jockeys that will be here will be world-class.

“One of the biggest surprises to me is the standard of the staying race on the turf. It is probably the highest handicap ever in turf racing anywhere. For that to happen on a first go here is really encouraging. 

“We hope this is a first step, with many steps in the future. To me it adds to the world talent 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. All the jockeys have been here before, the trainers know it because a lot of their horses end up here. 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, 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.”

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