Bahrain: a rising force in international racing

16.12.2020

Bahrain: a rising force in international racing

Sakhir racecourse hosted the second edition of the Bahrain International Trophy on November 20th. Buyers from the Kingdom of Bahrain have also made the headlines at the European sales in 2020 by purchasing several top lots. Here Salman Bin Rashed Al Khalifa, the Executive Director of the Rashid Equestrian & Horseracing Club, gets to grips with our questions.

JDG Arabians. – What role does PA racing play within the racing calendar of the Kingdom of Bahrain?

Salman Bin Rashed Al Khalifa. - From the first weekend of November until the end of April, we stage a total of 26 days racing; cards consist of seven races, but they can extend to eight heats. A further breakdown reveals that three races are restricted to English thoroughbreds bred in Bahrain, with three races open to imported English thoroughbreds, and one race reserved for PA horses. The PA races are very important to us. As we have been providing racing opportunities for the breed many years now: for you will be aware of their popularity on the international scene. In France, you stage numerous such races, and the same goes for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates... We are very supportive of PA horses and do everything we can in this respect.

Given the staging of the Bahrain International Trophy, an international race for English thoroughbreds, could we eventually envisage the creation of a Bahrain International Trophy for PA horses?

It’s a possibility! I think that all our local racing officials here are very attached to PA horses. I'm sure that it's something that we could introduce in the future, but we’re progressing on a step by step basis as regards the development of our international race programme, which is geared around the Bahrain International Trophy. We hope to be able to create a big international race day in the future, but this is dependent on the feedback and expectations of the various professionals, and against the backdrop of the international calendar.

Would you have believed us if we had told you, that in the wake of the inaugural Bahrain International Trophy in 2019, that the 2020 edition would attract five individual Gr1 winners?

To be honest, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback after the first edition of the Bahrain International Trophy. Everyone had a great time. The professionals were very sold on the facilities, and it was a great raceSo we were hoping to attract a good group of horses for the second edition. However, obviously, we didn't expect the field to be so strong! Given the presence of the Irish Derby winner (Gr1), Sovereign (Galileo), Deirdre (Harbinger), the Japanese star and Nassau Stakes heroine, the Queen Anne Stakes winning Lord Glitters (Whipper), plus the dual winner of the Canadian International Desert Encounter (Halling)... it's really a great collection of horses, and don't forget that there are other contenders in the race, and despite not being Gr1 winners, who, I think, will prove competitive. These are exciting times for all of us and we are grateful for the support that we have received from the European trainers. Alas, we haven’t attracted any French-trained runners this year. I hope that we will have some next year: as Royal Julius provided for some memorable moments in the wake of his win last year. I think it provided a good experience for all and sundry. We had a few French entries: but I think that everyone was a bit surprised by the quality of this year’s renewal, as they thought that the race would be on a par with last year. However, some of the horses boast very high ratings: and all the European runners are rated between 109 and 116. Personally, I love French racing: the racing is splendid, the racecourses and their facilities are magnificent, and everything is well organised, with top level racing to boot.

The idea is to pit international and local horses against each other. Do the latter stand a chance?

We have four home-trained runners in the field and a total of five horses will carry the colours of Bahraini stables: Global Giant (Shamardal) is trained in Britain by John Gosden on behalf of an owner from the Kingdom. He promises to be very competitive. On the locally-trained runners’ front, Port Lions (Kodiac) proved victorious in Saudi Arabia on the Saudi Cup card in February.

The aim, surely, is to have more international racing in the future, which will revolve around the Bahrain International Trophy? Would this entail the creation of the Bahrain Champions’ Day card?

It’s our intent to proceed along these lines and by adorning the card with new races. Above all, we are seeking to introduce a race for sprinters but, given the current situation in the world, this proposal has been shelved until next year. So we’re hoping to stage two races in 2021. Concerning the nuts and bolts of the big race day and, in common with the Dubai World Cup card which caters for all categories of horses, it isn’t an impossibility. However, we would like to proceed on a step by step basis, and also in line with the needs and expectations of European trainers and owners. If we can make a small contribution to the international racing calendar, then it might be possible to bring idea of a wonderful day’s racing to fruition.

How many horses are trained in Bahrain at the moment?

Around 350 horses are currently trained in Bahrain. They are all based at the racecourse where the stables are situated, which is very practical for the trainers. A few days ago, the British trainer George Baker announced that he was going to set up a satellite operation in Bahrain, and this made us very happy. I think that a lot of people are taking an interest in our racing: as Bahrain affords easy access to Dubai and Saudi Arabia... We are attempting to attract more owners and trainers to our country, and are conscious of the fact that there are many Festival Meetings in the region at this time of the year.

So this would mark a new chapter for Bahrain, which already attracts international top-jockeys?

Indeed, as high profile international jockeys have been coming to ride in Bahrain for several years now. This shows that they love our races and that they’re happy to return. This year, we’re delighted that the top jockeys have made the trip for the Bahrain International Trophy such as: Frankie Dettori, Ryan Moore, William Buick, Silvestre de Sousa, Adrie de Vries, Andrea Atzeni, and so forth... It's exciting that all these top jockeys are riding in our top race.

Could you describe Sakhir racecourse for us?

We have three courses: two turf tracks and one inner dirt course. We also have a dirt track for training purposes. It’s comfortable for all the horses and the trainers like it too. We open one of the two grass tracks for training purposes twice weekly. We’ve had to make do with only one grass track for a long time, but, this year, we opened a second ‘outer’ turf track, so we are now in a position in which we can use these facilities on an alternate basis. The jockeys have complimented us on this facility.

There are 350 horses currently trained in Bahrain. Do you hope to be able to increase the activity further?

We are constantly thinking of ways of improving and expanding our infrastructure. We are currently about to build new stables: as we are currently finalising the architectural plans for this, and hope to embark on the construction process very soon. We have also built new infrastructures, which has entailed the adding of a club ‘area’ for trainers, an equine swimming pool, and the installing of new horse walkers... Furthermore, I’m delighted to announce that we are setting up a jockeys’ school: and the first academy of its kind in the region. We have signed an agreement with Horse Racing Ireland, and we will be in a position to ‘teach’ jockeyship as of the end of January. It’s a project that gives us great joy, and we’re delighted to be able to invest in our jockeys and trainers.

Bahrain now stages an international race. Bahraini owners have been active on the European sales’ circuit for several years, but, in 2020, the top prices at the Arqana Select and Tattersalls Book 1 sales were paid by a Bahraini owner [editor's note: Sheikh Nasser Al Khalifa in partnership with KHK Racing]. Is Bahrain sending out a message in 2020? Does the ambition of this country extend to occupying a major position on the international racing stage?

To be honest, I've noticed for a few years now that Bahraini owners have been buying more horses at the European sales, and quality types at that. I think that this shows the willingness of Bahraini owners when it comes to playing an even more important place in the racing world, and which takes the form of an even stronger presence. It’s clear that numerous owners are investing large sums of money, and showing a desire to be active in racing around the world.

Bahrain has been placed in part three of the blue book, which means that there are currently no black type races on offer in The Kingdom. Given the starting point of the Bahrain International Trophy, are you aspiring to be a racing country that stages black type racing as part of the next step?

I would like to think that we can achieve this! Obviously, there are procedures in place designed to achieve this, and criteria which must be met. To make an application to the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities, we have to go through the Asian Racing Committee with a view to obtaining black type status. Our races will then be evaluated, as will the quality of the horses which contested them... It's a process which we want to put in place: it's not simple, but we would like to work towards this, and to have this goal. We staged the inaugural edition of the Bahrain International Trophy last year, and the second edition took place on Friday [editor's note: November 20th], and I think that immediately afterwards we will apply to the Asian Racing Committee for black type status. So what will be the status of the race if this is approved? I don't know but we will work hard to enhance the race’s status, and ensure its recognition.