The horse and the Middle East – the cradle of the thoroughbred - are inextricably linked. Now though, the region is fast being recognised as a powerhouse of the sport and not just because of its high profile and hugely successful owners.
Led by Dubai, which stages some of the best racing on the planet - including the fabled World Cup Carnival - other countries are making a big impact in helping to position the region at the forefront of the sport globally, with some of the finest courses and richest races.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are following in Dubai’s slip stream with major events of their own. Bahrain has the £500,000 group 3 International Trophy being run for the third time on Friday, November 19, and has also recently announced a valuable ten race Turf series which starts next month on December 10. Saudi Arabia has the world’s richest race, the Group 1 Saudi Cup, first run in 2019 with prize money of $20m. Both countries have also had elevated international status bestowed upon them.
Mohammad Essa Al Adhab, General Manager of Dubai Racing Club, commented: “Here in Dubai we have a proud tradition of racing, extending back even further than the inception of the Dubai World Cup meeting in 1996.
"We are keen to uphold the high standards established during that time and have recently announced increases to the purses across all of the Dubai World Cup Carnival races, culminating the $30.5million Dubai World Cup fixture on March 26.
"We are delighted that our friends elsewhere in the Middle East are also now developing their international meetings and we look forward to working with them to further make the region the best destination for horseracing during the winter months.”
It is premature to suggest that there is a significant shift in the balance of power in racing towards the Middle East. At least not yet. But a rivalry is not the raison d’etre. The growth complements the European flat season, and is also helping to establish a genuinely international dimension to the sport.
What is indisputable is that the region is able to offer a glittering window between November and March which is proving highly attractive for owners and trainers from Britain, Europe, the USA, Australia and Japan. And the UAE, with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are coordinating their efforts to produce a compelling narrative.
“These are truly exciting times for us,” said Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Equestrian High Commission and chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia.
“The way we look at it here is that it is a regional effort working with our colleagues in the UAE as well as Bahrain to put together a racing environment in this part of the world which fills in a slow calendar time between November and March.
“I think it is not only going to be really good for this region, I think it also opens up opportunities to come to this part of the world. All three of us are talking now and in advanced stages of opening up this region to each other.”
Sheikh Salman bin Rashed Al Khalifa, the executive director of the Rashid Equestrian & Horseracing Club in Bahrain, said: “Racing here has always been hugely popular. We have been formalising relations with others in the region. We have been sitting around the table. These talks have been going for a long time. We are supporting each other in every way possible. I am very happy with the pace of progress. We are very excited to be part of the development that is happening.”
This concerted approach includes working closely to harmonise quarantine and travel regulations with the ultimate aim of attracting overseas trainers to base themselves in the region and campaign here over the winter across the jurisdictions and at various levels of competition. The facilities are second to none. And where sport has led, tourism, travel, diplomatic and political initiatives can follow.
“When King Salman ascended to the throne seven years ago, he made it very clear that sport was going to be a major part of his policy here,” Prince Bander explained. “And he felt, along with the Crown Prince, that Saudi Arabia was nowhere near its potential or where it needed to be. Today you see major international events coming to this part of the world. “
Tom Ryan, director of strategy and international racing in Saudi Arabia, said: “I realised three years ago that the Saudi Cup had the potential to put Saudi Arabia at the centre of the racing world. I believe it is recognised as one of the best in the world right now.
“The elevation of the Cup to Group 1 status is a sign not just about the event itself but more widely a sign of how the industry as a whole has developed here. Saudi Arabia has more to offer to racing nationally, regionally and internationally in the coming years."
Prince Bander continued: “The Cup has had an amazing effect on the local horseracing community. It has really energised the community here, pushed owners and trainers to up their game. You see now Saudi backed purchases across the world. It all fits in very nicely with what is happening in the UAE and Bahrain to provide a very interesting prospect for owners and trainers across the world at this time of the year.
“The Cup has done wonders for horse racing within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its effect goes well beyond the weekend itself. It has pushed racing to the forefront of sports in the kingdom and has been welcomed by all the countries surrounding us in the region.
“I think the best is yet to come in terms of horseracing and it is one of the few parts of the world where you’ll see horse racing expand.”
Sheikh Salman concluded: “It is an incredibly exciting time for horse racing in Bahrain. We have been blown away with the amount of quality trainers, jockeys and horses who have come to race here since the first Bahrain International Trophy in 2019.
“We seek to fulfil our ambition in developing a horseracing industry that stands alongside the world’s best, to host consistently high calibre races throughout the season that attract leading domestic and international challengers. “