Saudi jockeying for position with world's richest race

Riyadh (AFP) –


The Saudi Cup's $20 million prize fund is helping to raise the kingdom's racing profile, trainers say, as payouts in other Gulf racing mainstays dip because of economic pressures and the pandemic.

Won by 21-year-old David Egan on his Saudi-owned mount Mishriff, the race was run this year with fewer US entries because of the logistical challenges posed by coronavirus and Saudi Arabia's strict testing and quarantine requirements.

"It's fabulous to be connected with such a class horse," Egan said after claiming the prize on last year's French Derby winner trained by John Gosden in England.

"In (Mishriff owner) Prince Faisal's backyard, it's an honour."

The four-year-old prevailed late over Charlatan, on his fourth career start, at the unusually chilly King Abdulaziz racecourse in the capital Riyadh to take home the $10 million winner's share.

"You're coming here for some decent prize money. It's the same with the Arc day in France, Royal Ascot, the Breeders' Cup -- it's all about competing for decent prize money," said British trainer Allan Smith who had two runners in the supporting races.

The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, sponsored by Saudi's wealthy neighbour Qatar, had a three million euro ($3.64 million) prize purse in 2020.

Smith said he thought Saudi had "a better chance" than other nations in the Gulf to maintain lavish prize money.

"We're already seeing in Dubai the prize money has gone down now this season for the Carnival. It's almost halved I think. Of course their basic thing is tourism now and that's been hit hard with the Covid situation."

Smith said Saudi "had a bit of cash to hold them over in these times".

In 2019 the total prize money for Dubai World Cup carnival night grew $5 million to $35 million. In 2021 the fixture will have a $26.5 million prize fund.

This year's second running of the Saudi Cup went ahead with only a handful of spectators in attendance as Saudi battles to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

- 'Travel restrictions' -

"It's fair to say 2020 has been a challenging year and there is no question that the Saudi Cup 2021 will continue to feel the effects of the Covid-19 situation," chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia Prince Bandar bin Khalid al-Faisal said in a statement.

"Yet we have demonstrated our ongoing commitment to this event and the sport internationally by raising prize money on the day from $29.2 million to $30.5 million."

The Saudi Cup was first run in 2020 but the glamourous gathering was overshadowed when winner Maximum Security's trainer, Jason Servis, subsequently faced accusations of widespread doping. The authorities have not yet paid out.

Smith said he did not believe Saudi had staged the Cup to compete with Dubai suggesting that de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who attended Saturday, "wants to open things up".

"It's good for the region, it's just unfortunate that this year they haven't got the international horses they would have liked because of the travel restrictions, and some trainers not wanting to travel over with their horses," he said.

Ahead of the race, sister of activist Loujain al-Hathloul, famed for campaigning to end the ban on women driving, called on British jockey Hollie Doyle, the first female jockey to ride in the Cup, to withdraw.

"We haven't had any pressure regarding human rights. People have to understand the Middle East is the Middle East," said Smith.

The ultra-conservative kingdom has in recent years invested heavily in sporting events, in a soft power push designed to project a more moderate image and jettison a reputation for rights abuses.

"The Saudi Cup forms the foundations upon which we will build a top tier racing and equestrian industry that has a positive impact on Saudi sport, culture and economy while promoting the country internationally," added Prince Bandar.

The wealthy Gulf monarchies have invested heavily in the sport with English racegoers accustomed to the silks of Dubai's Godolphin, Qatar Racing and Saudi Arabia's recently deceased Prince Khalid Abdullah taking the big prizes.