Qatari jockey Khadija in 'paradise' as she goes for glory at Goodwood

Al Bastaki enjoying chance of a lifetime as she competes in prestigious Magnolia Cup

Qatari jockey Khadija Al Bastaki will be riding in the Magnolia Cup at Goodwood on Friday, August 4, 2023. Rob Greig for The National
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Twelve days ago Khadija Al Bastaki received a telephone call she hopes will prove life changing – not only for her but also for many other girls in her homeland of Qatar.

The 34-year-old was asked if she would be an emergency replacement in Friday's Magnolia Cup, the showpiece race at Goodwood for amateur women jockeys and an event which raises huge amounts of money for charity.

Khadija jumped at the chance and dropped everything to fly to England which she describes, despite the incessant rain, as ‘paradise'.

“It is a dream come true, I am so excited, so happy” says Khadija, for whom the past few days have been a whirlwind of activity at the British Racing School in Newmarket, where she has been staying ahead of the race on Ladies’ Day at the festival fondly known as ‘Glorious Goodwood'.

She has had to undergo rigorous fitness and technical skills tests under the watchful eye of the BRS’s international jockey coach Michael Tebbutt, who has pushed her hard, as well as simulator training to ensure she is up to the requisite standard demanded by the prestigious race.

That she had no problem passing is no surprise. She has been an amateur jockey for 16 years in Qatar where she has ridden 10 winners, both on thoroughbreds and Arab horses.

Her only concern was fitness given racing in Qatar shuts down in April for the summer, but she proved up to the task, having continued training in the off season with daily visits to the gym, 8km runs twice a week and juggling riding with family commitments. Although small in stature at only 1.58m and 46kg, she is more than capable of handling a thoroughbred weighing half a tonne.

Khadija, the mother of a three-year-old daughter, will be one of 12 amateur jockeys who are competing in the five-and-a-half furlong race. She will be riding a horse called Harry With Style, trained by John Ryan in Newmarket, who on form will have a fair chance.

As one of six siblings, her family have rallied around, including her mother babysitting while she is away. Her brother Abdulrahman Abdulwahed is a trainer for whom she sometimes works and who acts as a guide and mentor.

As her country’s only female jockey, something which has taken real determination and commitment, she hopes her participation will light a fire for aspiring girls who might follow in her footsteps.

“I hope so, because I am the only female jockey," she says. "I would like to have others with me!”

Having been bitten by the racing bug as a young child when her kindergarten class visited the races, Khadija has not looked back.

“From then I fell in love with the horses,” she explains. “They are unique and very special. When I ride I am just relaxed. I love it. It helps me to clear my head, gets rid of stress. It is about freedom. I am not scared.”

She appreciates the impact winning the race can have. Four years ago Khadijah Mellah, who learnt to ride in an inner city racing school in south London, triumphed wearing a hijab. It was an uplifting moment which garnered worldwide attention. A documentary on her life was made.

“If I win it will be great," adds Khadija, who likes reading, drawing and music. “If I don’t I will still be happy because that is what racing is about. I also hope that next season in Qatar I will be allowed to ride with professional jockeys.

“I already have my dream come true being in England. But my ambition is to ride more in Qatar and one day be a professional jockey.”

Proceeds from the race will go to the Education Above All (EAA), founded 11 years ago by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the former first lady of Qatar and the mother of the ruling Emir.

Chief among the projects to benefit is one in Malawi that provides education and support for children at risk of dropping out of primary education and aims to empower thousands of girls to access education and remain in school.

In the UK, the EAA works closely with Educate A Child International. Its CEO James Shaw-Hamilton said there were 320,000 children out of education in Malawi for myriad reasons such as poverty, displacement and natural disaster. The EAA supports 40,000 of those children, the majority of which are girls.

“Money raised by the Magnolia Cup is very important," said Shaw-Hamilton. "The whole event is about empowerment for girls and young women."

In such circumstances Khadija is proud to fly the flag for Qatar. But there was one problem that looked as if no-one could help her with.

She left in such a rush she only packed her riding gear, not knowing she had been be invited to a private ball thrown by the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood House.

Some quick thinking and a trip to the shops with Beth Sullivan, the BRS operations manager, provided the solution.

"We went shopping in Newmarket and found a beautiful dress in jade green,” said Sullivan. “When Khadija saw it her face lit up. She looks wonderful in it.”

Having made it to the ball, now it only remains for her to land the biggest prize of her life and for another dream to come true.

Updated: August 03, 2023, 9:56 AM