Purebred Arabians have a dilemma in England

Lack of runners is limiting the Purebred Arabians schedule in the UK this season to 11 meets, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

Frankie Dettori riding Scarf, in blue, won the Dubai Duty Free Cup at Newbury, which had no problems attracting purebred Arabians for the Dubai International Arabian Raceday. But the Arabian schedule in the UK this year has been trimmed due to a lack of runners.
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Purebred Arabian racing may be in a state of flux in Britain but nothing was going to dampen the spirits of either the horsemen or spectators who came to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dubai International Arabian Raceday on Sunday.

Where usually up to 16,000 people flock to Newbury Racecourse, persistent heavy rain and poor temporary public transport to the track threatened to derail the jewel in the crown of the British Arabian season.

The anniversary of the single biggest Arabian race day in the world was marked by increased prize-money and a boost in Purebred Arabians competing across the eight-race card but only 5,000 spectators who braved the atrocious conditions.

Because of Ramadan, the meeting had been moved from its usual summer spot to become the climax to the British season. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid was crowned the winning owner; his trainer, Gill Duffield, also became champion, and Phil Collington, who is Sheikh Hamdan's leading amateur, picked up the jockey award.

Despite the fanfare though, it remains clear that without the continued patronage of Sheikh Hamdan, and a select group of companies based in the UAE, Arabian racing in Britain would virtually collapse.

There were only 11 Purebred Arabian meetings in Britain this season, down from a high point in the past few years of 24.

The Purebred Arabian population stands at around only 100 and Hereford Racecourse, which hosted two meetings this season, is about to close.

"We have a lot of international runners here, but they only come over for this day because of the prize money and Group racing," Collington said. "There's not enough Arab horses registered in England. We need more. We are doing OK now with sponsorship, which is good, but the season has halved from what it used to be."

Although at the bottom of the sport things are going from bad to worse at the top the immediate future seems bright.

Newbury Racecourse announced in the build-up to the fixture that £30,000 (Dh196,800) of extra prize money had been found to take the total for the day to £159,000. Jebel Ali Racecourse had stepped up its support from previously sponsoring a handicap to the Group 1 Zabeel International Stakes, and Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell operation added to the purse of the Group 1 Hatta International Stakes. The growing popularity of the sport around the world was also highlighted by the National Academy of Indian Payroll becoming the first Indian organisation to sponsor a race on the card.

Although there are far larger individual purses on offer around the world - the Qatar Arabian World Cup at Longchamp in France in two weeks is worth €700,000 (Dh3.4 million) - there is not a card dedicated to Arabian racing that provides as much prize money.

Much like its thoroughbred partner, British Arabian racing appears to be trading on its prestige, as evidenced by the three Group 1 races on the card.

"Every time we come here we come with our best horses," said Damian de Watrigant, the France-based trainer, who won the Zabeel International with Hilal Al Zaman and the Emirates Equestrian Federation Stakes with Manark.

"The crowd is very important for us here because it is nice to win races in front of a lot of people.

"Of course in Dubai, France and Turkey there are bigger races, but the races here and at Newbury and Ascot are prestigious and are excellent for breeding purposes.

"I don't come for any other races. It is difficult to tell an owner we are going to race in England for small prize money - it will cost us more to come over that we would win.

"The Group racing is very different and to win at Sheikh Hamdan's meeting is very special for me."

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