The Al Uqda project shows that Qatar is looking to the future
The equestrian complex at Al Uqda at Al Khor is 45 kms north of Doha. Initially, conceived as a training centre for endurance horses, the growing demands placed on Qatar’s only racetrack at Al Rayyan were such that there was a pressing need for another racecourse. The installation of a 2,000m turf track, coupled to a 1,900m fibre-sand inner course, enabled racing to get underway there over two years ago, which initially took the form of a five-race trial card on January 31st. It proved a success and racing now takes place there on Saturdays, which follow on from the twice weekly fixtures, on Wednesday and Thursday, at Al Rayyan. Al Uqda hosted 15 race meetings last season, a figure that has since risen to 17, and it’s anticipated that this figure will rise further as the site undergoes further development. The track’s primary function is to support Al Rayyan, which takes the form of staging racing over a three week period in the run up to the H.H. The Amir Sword Festival, as this enables the grass surface at Al Rayyan to be in prime nick for this prestigious meeting. Looking to the future, Al Uqda may be deployed in a similar role in December, and this in the lead-up to the International Derby Meeting at the end of the year.
Leading trainer Alban de Mieulle was unstinting in his praise for the new track and he said: "It’s very nice. My personal opinion is that the all-weather surface at Al Uqda is better than its Al Rayyan counterpart. The Al Rayyan facility is 20 years old and its grass track needs upgrading. However, they don’t have time to do the work as the season is very short. I understand this situation. So we now have two racecourses. I hope that this will facilitate the improvements at Al Rayyan."
The stabling area at Al Uqda is subdivided into eight barns, with each unit comprising 15 boxes, for a total of 480 boxes. Each stabling block has its own horse-walker and equine swimming pool. The indoor area also hosts the sales which fall under the QREC. Provision has also been made for a veterinary facility, an isolation unit and stable staff living quarters, whereas the 120 stables which make up block D are for the sole use of horses on race-days.
Currently around 360 horses, split between 15 trainers, are trained at Al Quda. Some are very small scale operations, whereas others oversee the satellite operations of the big multiples. Éric Lemartinel, whom we associate with the horses of Al Shaqab, is the most notable presence – this concern being the only one among the country’s top owners not to have its own private training centre. The handler also oversees the Al Shaqab horses trained at Al Rayyan Park. His need to expand meant that he was happy to split his increasing number of horses between the two sites. Having availed himself to two barns, it should be pointed out that the journey between the sites doesn’t faze him in the least.
A new grandstand and track extension works are on the cards
Now in summer recess, the success of Al Uqda has entailed further government support, and a new grandstand is being built at the beginning of the straight. Visitors will find this siting perplexing, given its positioning which is at odds with a right-handed track, but the explanation goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the course will be the subject of extension works. The QREC Handicapper Marcus Weedon explained: "In the wake of the alterations, the straight will stretch out to 600m. The aim is for the whole track to develop into a far bigger ‘oval’ shaped facility than that at Al Rayyan. The uphill finish works really well, although the gradient is more pronounced on the turf course, as its equivalent on the all-weather course has been artificially levelled out. The back stretch will also be the subject of extension works. This will facilitate 2,000m races from the back straight extension to the new grandstand. There’s talk of also installing a 1,000m straight course, which would start at the backstretch extension and finish just before the home turn. It sounds unconventional, but you have similar sprint courses in place at Sandown Park and Longchamp. It’s the only way that you can race on a straight track without building a new racecourse." Regarding Al Uqda’s potential, he added: "There are so many things you can do there, as it’s situated on a big site, with nothing, as yet, around it, whereas, you’re fenced-in at Al Rayyan. There’s no scope for further development there."
The safety limit is 14 runners per race. This is the best form of compromise given that the width of the turf track is a mere 18m wide. Although the rails can be moved in order to accommodate surface wear and repair and course alterations. The new grandstand will accommodate areas for jockeys and stewards alike. A weighing room will also be part of the new set-up. The above facilities are, at present, contained within a cluster of porta cabins, in tandem with other temporary facilities, such as those set aside for analysing the prints of photo-finishes.
Al Uqda underpins the base of the racing pyramid
In order to increase the number of meetings even further, possibly to 30, floodlights will have to be installed in the coming years, and particularly relative to the timing of Ramadan, which will fall earlier in the year, bearing in mind Al Uqda’s peak racing period which begins in February. The current lack of a floodlights restricts Al Uqda to seven-race cards, whereas Al Rayyan is capable of staging up to ten races per meeting. Marcus Weedon affirmed that Al Uqda aims to cater for the grassroots, which means that black type races will strictly be off limits. He elaborated: "Prize money levels are slightly less prize than those at Al Rayyan. We need to cater for trainers at the grassroots end of the scale. We need to keep in mind the depth of the scale of the various parties involved in the sport. We’re proud of the sheer diversity of the ownership base, and the racing opportunities afforded to their horses. Horses are balloted out but this only applies to a few races. Our races are well subscribed throughout the season, but we’re pleased that the number of horses balloted out has been reduced because of the advent of Al Uqda."
The way forward for Qatar to reach the next level internationally is to build an entirely new racecourse, This is currently just at the discussion stage but, given the success of the 2022 World Cup, the rise in prize money levels, and the general upswing of horse racing in the country as a whole, it is hard not to envisage this becoming reality.
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