How Saudi Cup 2021 will race to new highs despite Covid restrictions
Exclusive: JCSA's Prince Bandar said sponsorship for event’s second edition has risen more than 600%
The second edition of the Saudi Cup may only be weeks away but there will be a marked contrast at the 2021 event next month to Saudi Arabia’s debut on to the international racing scene last year.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic forcing several global events to be cancelled or postponed, the kingdom’s two-day racing festival will go ahead at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh on February 19-20, with some of the world’s leading racehorses and jockeys in attendance.
However, Covid-19 restrictions mean there will be no spectators at this year’s event, with attendance limited to the media and groups linked to the horses competing.
“The media and TV coverage is really important this year because of the low attendance,” said Prince Bandar Bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of both the Equestrian High Commission and the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia (JCSA).
“Only the horses and the horse connections, and perhaps a limited number of guests with the owners, will be allowed to attend while maintaining the Ministry of Health's strict requirements in terms of masks and social distancing.”
Despite the challenges, the allure of the world’s richest horse race has not gone unnoticed on the world stage, with the event attracting more than a 600 per cent surge in sponsorship this year compared to last.
Prince Bandar said he can only compare the “huge jump” in interest to the inaugural event last year, “so without coronavirus, who’s to say whether it might have been even larger”.
“Last year we weren't sure what to expect. Very few sponsors came in but there's definitely a much bigger interest domestically here in the kingdom, for sponsorship, and we're very excited about that prospect," he said.
“Most sponsors are there for the TV and media as opposed to attendees at the event itself – that’s where the value comes in."
Sponsorship from domestic telecom companies, as well as international players, such as the Swiss watch brand Longines, is exactly the positive business measure the JCSA needs when it reports back to the government on how the event contributes to the country’s economic growth and the creation of new jobs.
Like other major sporting events, such as the Dakar Rally and the upcoming Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah in November, the Saudi Cup must not only promote the country at an international level but also act as a marker of its transformational journey.
Saudi Arabia has undergone an aggressive economic diversification drive in recent years, as part of its Vision 2030 objective, as it looks to diversify away from a reliance on oil by attracting investment into its tourism, technology, sport and entertainment sectors.
Saudi Arabia's non-oil private sector economy expanded for a third straight month in November to 54.7, according to the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit Saudi Arabia Purchasing Managers' Index, the kingdom's highest reading in 10 months, with the kingdom pledging to continue spending on major projects and programmes.
“One of the key indicators we are required to report to the government annually is how are we creating an industry,” Prince Bandar said.
“The JCSA is transforming this from a purely sport-oriented activity to an industry and the government is very keen on how many jobs we're creating for Saudis and how many Saudis" are entering the sector.
The government also assesses the impact on the wider economy, such as transportation, hospitality, and in a post-Covid world, the effect the event has on tourism.
Saudi Arabia is keen to boost its tourism industry since opening its borders to international visitors, with key heritage sites now open year-round and a number of ‘giga-projects’ under construction to attract visitors, including the futuristic city of Neom.
"Nothing would give me more pleasure if we, as the Saudi cup, contribute tens of thousands of people on an annual basis," Prince Bandar said.
To have the Saudi Cup's business model measured as part of that vision is a big achievement for Prince Bandar, who was asked to join the JCSA four years ago, and has since gone on to become instrumental in the growth of the sport on the international stage.
At the time, he said the kingdom was “very aggressive” in terms of opening up to sports events, making him realise there was an opportunity for the country to host an international horse racing event.
“We pitched the idea, and they liked it but said if you're going to do this, we want to be one of the top five races. Globally, we don't want anything, halfway,” Prince Bandar said.
The JCSA spent the next few months consulting the industry’s top owners and trainers, before coming up with the concept of the Saudi Cup, adding the additional attraction of the largest prize purse in the world.
“The mandate from the government was to make sure we were in the top five, and then the question was asked ‘why aren't you number one?’. We said, ‘well, races take years to establish a reputation and become very much part of the global racing calendar’,” Prince Bandar said.
The “obvious” way to become number one from year one was through prize money, “so we came up with the richest race in the world and it grabbed a lot of attention”, he said.
The 2020 Saudi Cup surpassed the Dubai World Cup as the richest in racing, with 64 international runners representing 10 countries, including Saudi Arabia, competing for a total prize pot of $29.2 million, with the $20m Saudi Cup race the highlight.
While last year's Saudi Cup winner, Maximum Security, made history on February 29, when it became the first to cross the finish line, the JCSA withheld the prize-money after its former trainer Jason Servis faced federal charges in the US as part of an alleged widespread doping scheme.
"It reflects the seriousness we have here in the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, on how we view performance enhancement drugs of any kind," Prince Bandar said.
"Once the resolution comes out that prize money will be directed either to the connections of Maximum Security ... or if there's any kind of incriminating evidence, then unfortunately, the horse will be disqualified and there will be a redistribution of the prize money."
The year’s prize purse for the 16-race event has been extended to $30.5 million with competitors from 19 countries, thanks to a boost to the prize money of three dirt races.
The event will also see seven female and seven male jockeys compete in the International Jockeys Challenge, following on from last year when New Zealander Lisa Allpress became the first woman to win a race in the country.
It is among a number of firsts for the country, which had never held an international racing event before last February. But Prince Bandar said once he had the approval of the government, the process was relatively quick because the infrastructure, owners and trainers were already there.
"We already had a dirt track that I would argue is the top one in the world in terms of the quality of the track and the size of it," he said.
"The challenge was to come up with a turf track with international specifications that would accommodate some of the best horses in the world. It was such a relief when we tested the track and it lived up to our expectations."
Prince Bandar promises this year’s line-up will be even more impressive than last year’s, after owners "unfamiliar with this part of the world" were persuaded by trainers and jockeys to take part.
“This year, there's no question about that,” he said.
What will be under question is how many people will attend, as Covid restrictions are tightened across the globe to counter the rising number of cases.
Prince Bandar said the event will adhere to a system already in place for major sporting events, such as the Dakar Rally, with a Covid test for jockeys and their parties within 72 hours of arrival and a short quarantine.
"We might get an exemption when it comes to owners, if they go to a specific area," he said.
"We have prepared areas that are adjacent to the track with very luxurious accommodation covering all levels from the owners to the grooms, and we have some accommodation in the club," he said.
"Oddly enough, because of these restrictions, we might have the best organised event so far. The people are limited, the places are available, and we can keep them within the track area.”
Looking ahead, Prince Bandar said the Saudi Cup has already achieved its aim to become a horse racing event "second to none" in terms of prize money, experience, sponsorship and attracting the international racing community.
His next aim is to increase Saudi participation and achievement in international racing and to streamline the racing calendar, with the UAE and Bahrain helping to grow the region's racing industry on the global stage. He also wants to lengthen the region's racing season by capitalising on the races in Saudi Arabia's cooler regions.
"It's really an untapped market and I don't think it's unreasonable to say that within the next five years, we will have a year-long season in the GCC as the GCC opens up to each other, where owners and trainers can really pick and choose where they want to run a race," he said.
"This will go a long way in providing a much more interesting a proposition for trainers, specifically around the Gulf area, and then we will no longer look at the states as separate. It will be more like the European environment where horses can move within Europe or within the US as they move from state to state."
Updated: January 14, 2021 05:09 PM