The focus of the racing world shifted to Riyadh on February 29th


The focus of the racing world shifted to Riyadh on February 29th

The inaugural edition of any international meeting is invariably an experience in itself. Both Adeline Gombaud and Debbie Burt embarked on a journey of discovery in what has proved to be the big novelty factor of the international racing scene.

The inaugural Saudi Cup meeting was generally well received by the attending horsemen and media. For those which have grown accustomed to the Dubai World Cup format, which was used as a model for this event, the transition must have seemed seamless – apart from the destination. We also experienced the familiar routine of morning workouts in the gaze of the world’s media, which also afforded them the opportunity of being able to speak with connections. The racing was of the highest quality and on a par with the prize money on offer.

Adrian Beaumont, one of the directors of the International Racing Bureau (IRB), said: "The Obaiya Cup was particularly competitive, and many connections of highest-rated Arabians were contacting the IRB weeks in advance, hoping to secure an invitation." The 14-runner field included two raiders each from France and the UAE, three from Oman, plus a duo from the Saudi satellite yard of Newmarket-based trainer Phil Collington.

A truly international occasion… The addition of the Obaiya Cup (Arabian Classic) run over 2,000m (10f) mirrored the creation of the Dubai Kahayla Classic on the World Cup card. However, it would have been a huge oversight not to have included a PA race on the Saudi Cup card. Its proximity to The H.H. Amir’s Sword Festival in Qatar may well have impacted on the composition of the final field. Nevertheless, some top-notch Gr1 PA performers were in the line-up and they invariably upheld international form. It also set the scene for an exceptional comeback performance from the 2018 Dubai Kahayla Classic winner, Tallaab Al Khaleidah (Jalnood Al Khalediah). Unraced for a year, he accounted for Hajres (Nizam) and Mashhur Al Khalediah (Jalnar Al Khalediah). The Obaiya Cup’s purse of US $1.9 million makes it the richest race of its type in the world, but it was devoid of Gr1 PA status. This reflects the fact that the race was seeing the light of day for the very first time.

Heralding a local victory... The winner of the inaugural Obaiya Cup (Arabian Classic), Tallaab Al Khalediah (Jallod Alkhalidiah), is clearly established among the elite performers on the Saudi Arabian stage. Numbering three wins in the Prince Sultan Cup, he showcased his huge talent after delivering an explosive performance in the Dubai Kahayla Classic (Gr1 PA) in 2018. Fifth in that same race in March 2019, he hadn’t been sighted on the racecourse since. That didn’t prevent Panamanian rider Roberto Perez from giving his mount a bold, attacking ride after taking the race by the scruff of the neck from the get-go. Consequently, Tallaab Al Khalediah dominated his rivals. Hajres (Nizam), trained by Élisabeth Bernard, ran a blinder after finishing a clear second. The Jean-Bernard Eyquem-ridden Masshur Al Khalediah (Jalnar Alkhalidiah) managed to hold on to third. Aoun (Mahabb), the second French raider, came up short in the straight after racing prominently.

Hajres runs a blinder. Hajres also achieved international success of sorts after delivering a much improved performance to finish second under Christophe Soumillon. Trained by Élisabeth Bernard, he carries the colours of Emadadein Alhtoushi.

Soumillon was pleased as punch with Hajres’ effort and he said: "He jumped out really well. On the turn, he really was off the bridle. I thought he'd have trouble getting home going to the last 400m, but he kept going the whole way. He was really tough today and is a really nice horse."

Madame Bernard was equally delighted and she added: "He is a globetrotter with a very good temperament. He sleeps in the truck, he sleeps on the plane. He is very quiet at the track and very easy to train. He was unlucky after he won the Prix Dormane (Gr 3PA) on his French debut as a 4-year-old. He was a sick horse after that and wasn’t right for a whole year."

Alhtoushi was joined in the post-race celebrations by Hajres’ breeder, Mohamed Essaied, and the latter still retains a share in the horse.

Essaied was thrilled and opined: "It is something unbelievable and something fantastic to experience this. Our partnership has lasted 10 years and we’re proving more successful by the day. We’re just starting out with this horse. Arabians mature and can perform at this level as 6, 7 and 8-year-olds."

A concept designed to boost the local racing scene

The first Saudi Cup meeting has certainly proved a hit with the placed connections. It is designed to boost the Kingdom’s development internationally, just as the Dubai World Cup has done for the UAE racing.

Adrian Beaumont said: "The aperitif to the meeting was Kingdom Day which featured an international jockeys’ competition. Lisa Allpress and Sibylle Vogt both recorded wins for the ladies, and the main competition itself was won by the brilliant Mike Smith, which was a perfect prelude to the weekend. The Saudi Cup Committee went all out to encourage international participation. For one, they waived all entry fees, and they also offered business class flights and accommodation for the owners, trainers and jockeys. This was in addition to picking up the tab for the horses and grooms’ travelling costs. Describing the facilities, he added: "The horses were stabled in secure, airy quarantine barns where they could have a pick of grass. This facility had its own training track, and the horses also had access to the main dirt and turf tracks. Grooms were accommodated on site in a smart, modern villa complex, and with it access to the ‘Club House’, which includes a restaurant and sports facilities."  

Newmarket-based Collington entered the Athbah Stud pair, Medhaaf Athbah (Amer) and Mashhur Al Khalediah. He’s no stranger to the Gulf States’ racing scene, having worked in Dubai with former top UK Arabian trainer Gill Duffield. He is now a regular visitor to Saudi Arabia.  

"The climate is very similar as we’re only an hour away from Dubai", said Collington. "Although the facilities were limited in Riyadh when I first came out, they’re improving all the time. Of course, the Saudi Cup has meant that things are progressing quickly. This is my third winter here, so I know what to bring for the horses, and what can be sourced locally. Initially, we’d come out for the Prince Sultan Cup at Al Khalediah tin which we’ve been third twice, including last year with Mehdaaf Athbah. This year our goal was the Obaiya Cup."

Jean-Bernard Eyquem gives his perspective. Both horses are well used to racing abroad. In November, en route to Saudi Arabia, Mehdaaf Athbah won on the dirt in Belgium, whereas Mashhur Al Khalediah landed the Jewel Crown in Abu Dhabi, giving Collington his first Gr1PA win.

Collington commuted between Riyadh and Newmarket throughout the winter, but it was his jockey Jean-Bernard Eyquem who oversaw the preparation of both horses in the final six weeks.  

Eyquem said: "I rode both horses in the morning. On his first race here, Mashhur was not fully wound up, so I had to crank up his training regime to ensure that he was 100 per cent for this race. Regarding Medhaaf, I simply had to keep him ticking over. I think Mashhur Al Khalediah is the best PA horse over a mile at the moment. He ran perfectly today but the trip was too long for him.

This has been my first experience of Saudi Arabia. I’ve ridden in many countries and think that the racing here is similar to the US. The way in which races are run in France makes for very tactical affairs. However, it’s not the same here. The fact that I had put the horses through their paces in the mornings locally was an advantage, as I knew what to expect."

He added: "It’s a very good country but the transition between Europe and here has been hard. You have to give up your regular habits such as meeting with friends, or going for a drink, and so forth. Yet, after six weeks here, it becomes normal, and so it has become the home away from home for now. Big races aren’t the norm, as there is just the Prince Sultan Cup. I don’t think that people will see beyond the prize money on offer at this meeting for now. I hope that it will be the same here, as it was for Dubai with the World Cup. I hope it heads in the same direction."

Translating Saudi racing into numbers. Horse racing has taken place in the Kingdom since time immemorial, but it only started to be organised on formal lines in the post war period, when PA horses were the norm. However, since 1987, the powers that be diversified into the domain of English thoroughbreds. In 2017, for example, there were 5.445 broodmares and 595 stallions in Saudi Arabia, with the stats also revealing the birth of 1.993 foals. Owners are divided into two categories, with the first group comprising members of the Royal Family, and several high end businessmen, which number around 12 in total. The second category is made up Bedouins and this group are also trainers and breeders. It’s what this group do for a living and they live off the proceeds of the horses which they sell. These can be yearlings or horses-in-training which are sold privately. In parallel, PA racing takes place at Al Khalidiah racecourse, which are restricted to locally-bred horses. Prince Khaled Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, the owner of Al Khalidiah, has taken upon himself to reshape PA racing. He also heads a very sizeable breeding operation of over 800 horses, and a number of these boast French bloodlines. For around six years now, he has also proved to be the instigator of sales whereby horses go through the ring at public auction. This year, the King and Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have decided to relaunch PA racing at Janadriyah.