Champion UK trainer Philip Collington shares his Saudi Arabian experiences
Philip Collington was Champion Jockey under Arabian Racing Organisation rules five times, whilst he was retained Amateur jockey for His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Towards the end of his riding career, he was also assistant to multiple ARO champion trainer Gill Duffield. When she retired at the end of the 2015 season, from his base in Newmarket, Collington took over the training of half of Sheikh Hamdan’s UK Arabian racehorses, as well some from Athbah Stud.
Early achievement. Collington made an immediate impact on the European training scene in 2016, winning three Group PA races across the UK and France for Sheikh Hamdan. After winning the French Arabian Breeders’ Challenge Sprint (Gr2 PA) in Toulouse with Jamaayil, he spent three weeks with Francois Rohaut in Pau, arranged through Shadwell Stud. Whilst many of his training skills were passed on from Duffield, he admits that he learnt plenty during that brief period and has since incorporated some of Rohaut’s methods into his own routine.
Further UK Group PA success followed in 2017 with the Athbah homebred Mith’haf Athbah winning the H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Cup (Gr1 PA) over a mile, whom he also took to Toulouse to win another French Arabian Breeders’ Challenge Sprint (Gr2 PA).
He then went out to Riyadh with Mith’haf Athbah and Muntaser Al Khalediah to race in the Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz International Cup, with Muntaser Al Khalediah finishing third behind Tallab Al Khalediah. The race is run as part of the annual Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz International Arabian Horse Festival, a five-day event which includes racing and horse shows, it is hoped that the racing will develop with the aim of achieving Group status for the leading races.
This was Collington’s first experience of racing in Saudi Arabia and afterwards, comparing it to his experiences in Dubai fifteen years ago he said: “The racetracks are all in good order and there are plans to put in a Turf track too. They hope to encourage more international runners in the future.”
Breeding in France. 2018 saw Collington claim his first ARO trainers’ championship title and having run the filly Shomoos Athbah, and the colts Mith’haf Athbah and Mehdaaf Athbah over Arc weekend at Longchamp, they flew to Saudi Arabia, in preparation for the winter season there. Meanwhile Collington went to view the Athbah bloodstock in Normandy. Previously based in the UK, the stud moved their broodmares and youngstock to France in July 2018, where they now reside at the Haras de Gouffern & de La Genevraye of the de Gasté family. Primarily he went to see the two-year-olds who would be coming to him to be broken this winter, which included the fillies Jamrah Athbah (sister to Shomoos Athbah, by Burning Sand) and Bayan Athbah (half-sister to Mehdaaf Athbah, by AF Albahar). Athbah stud is owned and was founded by His Royal Highness Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Ahmed Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. The stud’s technical director, Abdul Moniem Ahmed, explains the Prince’s vision for the stud saying: “The aim is of one day being one of the leading Arabian racehorse owners in Europe. The Prince is involved on a daily basis with the welfare and racing programmes of his horses, we often have two or three-hour meetings. He is a horseman and he loves them, he wants to be part of every decision regarding them. Every year we are progressing with our breeding and I think we are going in the right direction.”
Training and racing in Riyadh. Attributing Shomoos Athbah’s poor run in Abu Dhabi’s H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Jewel Crown (Gr1 PA) to too many changes of routine in a short space of time, Collington was then able to concentrate on training in Saudi Arabia. Based in the main training centre at Riyadh, in Athbah Stud’s own stable, he was using the same training facilities as the previous year. He describes them as ‘adequate’ and if they are to increase international competitors, he feels it will need to be improved.
The best racing takes place at the Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Arabian Racecourse in Riyadh, with ten fixtures scheduled from October to March. Outside of Riyadh there are other tracks at Jeddah and Dammam. The standard of racing at the other tracks is much lower too. In Riyadh all races are for Purebred Arabians and each meeting has six races, apart from the Prince Sultan Festival fixture. According to the current ratings list, including a handful of overseas runners, there are around 400 horses registered to race at the course.
Speaking of the course, Collington commented: “The surface is a mixture of sand and a bit of fine wood chip. It is worked and harrowed very well and on racenight it is in perfect condition. The track manager says that its harrowed to about 8-10cm depth, it doesn’t seem to be excessively deep.”
In preparation for the Festival, Collington raced his horses in the domestic meetings, winning twice with Mehdaaf Athbah over 1,800m and once with Shomoos Athbah over 1,400m. Meeting sponsors include familiar names such as the President of the UAE Cup and Shadwell Stud.
The international races at the Festival are open to nominations from overseas, the racecourse committee review the ratings and then issue invitations. There was an additional international race added to the Festival card this year, the Al Khalediah International Cup over 1,600m. One of the Omani horses, Khozan, appeared to clip heels and brought down, or impeded, a number of runners including Shomoos Athbah ridden by Olivier Peslier.
Mehdaaf Athbah’s best performance. Following the incident, Peslier was able to walk away from the track and take his place aboard Muntaser Al Khalediah for Collington in the newly re-named Prince Sultan World Cup, with a prize fund of $ 1.5 million USD (for horses rated 100+). As in previous years, Saudi Arabia’s leading horse, Tallab Al Khalediah turned the race into a procession, taking it up from his pacemaker on the home turn and winning uncontested. The Qatar Arabian World Cup winner Fazza Al Khalediah was unable to go with him and was left to repel a strong challenge from Mehdaaf Athbah for second.
Collington considered Mehdaaf Athbah’s third place, beaten just over a length, to be one of his career best performances, alongside his second to Al Mourtajez at Chantilly. He reported that Muntaser Al Khalediah finished muscle sore and is expected to be retired, and all but ruled out another attempt at the Qatar Arabian World Cup for Mehdaaf Athbah saying: “It’s going to be interesting to see how Mehdaaf acts back on Turf - he was a lot closer to Fazza on Dirt.”
Competing his horses abroad from the beginning of his training career has been a great learning experience for Collington. He has flown them to Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar and with the European trips all undertaken by road, he is proud that they have travelled so well.
Back in the UK, Collington is now preparing his team for the new season with an exciting selection of young unexposed horses for H.H. Sheikh Hamdan and Athbah Stud. He expects to have a busy European campaign with his older Athbah horses, in what is likely to be Mith’haf Athbah’s last season of racing. He commented: “Mithaf has proven he’s best up to a mile. I’d love to take him back to Toulouse for another Breeders' Sprint, I think the Prince would be more amenable, now we think that he doesn’t like the Saudi surface. The form of that race two years ago was good, the second, Barnamaj was Gr1 PA winner in Dubai afterwards.”
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