In the heart of the Kingdom, the world’s most valuable horse race took place on February 25 and 26, at the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia at the King Abdulaziz racecourse in Riyadh. The Kingdom’s relationship with horses dates back centuries, when Bedouins used them as a means of transportation, as horses along with camels could endure the hot desert sands. They were also essential for wars and battles.
The acquisition and care of thoroughbreds were considered a manifestation of strength, prestige, and power. Horse racing as a sport has been in existence for hundreds of years but was not formalized and regulated until more recent times. In Saudi Arabia, princes would race against one another, and in 1965, HRH Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud announced the official establishment of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Cup was then first run in 2020. It is the most significant event in the history of horse racing in Saudi Arabia, and one of the world’s most valuable races, with prize money worth US $20 million, while the entire weekend carries a prize purse worth $35.1 million.
Chaired by HRH Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, the Saudi Cup produced its third renewal this year, with 21 countries across five continents participating. Jockeys, horses, trainers, and owners flocked to the event, along with VIPs from across the region and world, including Sheikh Isa bin Hamad Al Khalifa, chairman of the Rashid Equestrian & Horseracing Club in Bahrain; models Afef Jnifen and Farida Khelfa; and Saudi explorer Abdullah Aljumah. Traditional dances and musical performances displayed Saudi heritage, showcasing a rich culture to the international audience, who sported Saudi clothing by local and international brands. “Horse racing is a noble sport, a sport for kings, so to speak,” HRH Prince Bandar notes. “Combined with lifestyle, it is exciting for horse lovers who feel connected to them and who admire their beauty.” The prince’s own love of horses began as a young boy. “My earliest memory of horse riding is from back in the late 70s,” he reminisces. “My father used to race horses in Abha; we were active in horse racing back then.”
The Saudi Cup aims to raise awareness on horse racing in the Kingdom, encouraging both men and women to join the sport. The government is placing great emphasis on sports, with track and field, automotive sports, golf, and football receiving great support. “At the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, we are a part of the overall 2030 vision. Equestrian sports are not an exception,” furthers His Royal Highness. The stc International Jockeys Challenge (IJC) kicked off the two-day event, with 14 jockeys equally divided between males and females, riding locally trained horses competing in four races with a prize purse of $100 000 going to the winning jockey. Local horses raced to win a share of a $400 000 prize money for their connections, with variations from a 1 200m sprint to an 1 800m race. “It was a phenomenal experience; the turf felt amazing,” says French jockey Marie Velon, riding Black Wall. “Even though the distance was a bit short, we finished well. The race day is exciting, and I’m happy to be invited here.” Australian jockey Caitlin Jones scored 25 points on the IJC round three with Koheylan Alkheil and won the title. US-based Joel Rosario came second, followed by Australian Glen Boss. “That was so much fun. It’s nice to feel those competitive juices again. I have missed that a little bit,” notes Boss. It was the jockey’s first time in Saudi Arabia. “It’s a big thrill, I promise you,” he shares. Friday’s race included a $500 000 Saudi International Handicap for horses, presented by Al Rajhi Bank. Qatar-based Ronan Thomas won the race on his horse Lauderdale. The newly listed Al Mneefah Cup for purebred Arabians was won by Alban de Mieulle on First Class with $1 million presented by the Saudi Ministry of Culture – a double win for Qatar on the same day. The owner gets 70% of the prize money, while the jockey, trainer, and stable staff get 10% each.
One of the richest races in the world, the G1 Saudi Cup of 1 800m has a $10 million prize, which went to Emblem Road with jockey Wigberto Ramos. Emblem is trained in Saudi Arabia by Mitab Almulawah and owned by HRH Prince Saud bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The final race day also included five Group 3 races on dirt and turf, the Group 2 Obaiya Arabian Classic for Purebred Arabian horses, and the Jockey Club Handicap for locally trained horses.
The Saudi Cup puts horse racing in the Kingdom on the map, attracting some of the best horses in the world. The Chairman remarks that it is the place to connect and experience horse racing at its highest level with top-notch jockeys. “We support Arabian contests, which are becoming more prevalent. Whether they’re Arabian purebreds or thoroughbreds, it is something that has moved to another level, specifically in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” says Prince Bandar. Its overarching goal is to have young people involved in equestrian sports, and introduce them to the beauty of it, from show jumping, dressage, endurance, and beauty contests for Arabians, to flat racing Arabians or purebreds. Saudi Arabia is also pushing the economic side of sports – the equestrian sports industry alone is worth billions. The prince notes, “The government fully supports what we do. We are working on an equine ecosystem in Saudi Arabia that is second to none, considering horse welfare and other sports.” The Kingdom will provide opportunities, especially for Saudis to get involved in equestrian sports, not only as a hobby, but as a career move. Veterinarians, administrators, facility managers, event planners, and more jobs can tie around horse racing. “I think, within 10 years, we are going to see different sports in the Kingdom as major economic drivers, financing themselves,” HRH Prince Bandar concludes.
Originally published in the Spring/Sumer 2022 issue of Vogue Man Arabia