The promotion of Arabian horses in Britain is attracting new fans, writes Geoffrey Riddle Winchcombe School in Newbury, England, has 215 pupils aged between three and 11. A recent government report suggested that it was a good school, but not an outstanding one. And yet when Mirza al Sayegh, the director of the office of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, walked into a classroom there two weeks ago, the pupils greeted him in Arabic. They were all waving UAE flags and they had a firm grasp of where the UAE is on a world map.
The reason for this understanding of all things Arabian? The pupils had won a competition to best paint a life-sized camel sculpture at last year's International Arabian Day, the European showcase for racing purebred Arabians at Newbury racecourse. "His Highness Sheikh Hamdan was delighted with the competition," al Sayegh said afterwards. "It provided teachers with a wide range of opportunities to engage pupils in discussions about Arabic culture, social history and global awareness, all in the context of a creative art project."
The annual competition is just one of the initiatives being employed by Sheikh Hamdan's office to promote Arabian culture under the umbrella vehicle of Arabian racing. International Arabian Day - which is back at Newbury today - is staged under his patronage, and forms the third day of what is now billed as the Dubai Summer Festival, which has been held at Newbury since 2003. Today's card boasts eight races, featuring three Group 1 contests, and is the biggest race day in the world that is solely dedicated to the racing of purebred Arabians.
Although there are races that boast better prize money, the £129,000 (Dh728,000) on offer this afternoon is the largest purse for one day's Arabian racing. This afternoon forms part of a wider strategy that aims to enamour the British public with the sport. And on the face of it, the tactic seems to be working. Last year, more than 15,000 people took advantage of the free entry and parking to watch Al Dahma defeat No Risk Al Maury and Fryvolous in the feature race, the Group 1 Shadwell Dubai International Stakes. As a sideshow to the top-class action, racegoers were enticed into England's largest exhibition of UAE culture and commerce outside London.
Toni Newman, the racing manager for the Arabian Racing Organisation, the sport's regulatory body in the UK, is grateful for all the work of Sheikh Hamdan's office in promoting the sport here. "Arabian Day is a useful way to attract a lot of people," she said. "People come back year after year, and from all over the world. The lack of understanding that the British public has about Arabian racing is a prejudice that we face. Our job is to get people interested."
The central role the Arabian breed has played in the progression of thoroughbred racing is undeniable. Two of the three foundation sires to all modern thoroughbreds were Arabians after the Godolphin Arabian and Darley Arabian were brought to England in the early 18th century. It is said that Arabians gave the modern thoroughbred their vitality, but today's purebred Arabians are very different to their thoroughbred cousins.
"They are lot smarter than a thoroughbred," said Richard Hills, the retained jockey to Sheikh Hamdan. "You've got to kid them into doing things and often the most persuasive jockey wins. They don't go through tight gaps in races as they are naturally more cautious. "They are like a Ford Focus compared to the thoroughbred Ferrari. They're more reliable, have less acceleration and are shorter with a smaller stride.
"It makes them around a second a furlong slower." If riding an Arabian is different, then it follows that training them also requires a different set of skills. Gill Duffield, Sheikh Hamdan's private trainer of Arabians, has handled some of the best Arabians ever to set foot on a racecourse, particularly No Risk Al Maury, who, in January, won the Group 1 Maktoum Challenge, the opening race at glittering Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.
"They are really quite bright, and they think a lot," said Duffield, having just put a set of her horses through stalls practice for this afternoon's races at her Newmarket base. "They are real challenge to train and you've got to get on their wavelength. It can take three or four races for the penny to drop, but once they have got the hang of it they are quick learners. There can be a lot of improvement as a four-year-old, and they hit their peak between five and six."
Newman understands that the advertisement of Arabian racing and the promotion of Arabian culture are inextricably linked. At several lower-grade meetings throughout Britain, trade stands selling UAE produce as well as falconry displays and henna practitioners can be found. But the excitement that surrounds International Arabian day masks a sport that is struggling to survive in Britain. Aside from the four other Arabian group races, some of which are tacked on to big thoroughbred race days, the other 17 Arabian meetings in Britain throughout the year can sometimes be pretty stodgy fare.
British racegoers are reared on a diet of top-quality and competitive thoroughbred racing and, as such, they are a difficult market to attract. Hills is unsure whether Arabian racing will ever move into the mainstream in Britain. "I don't think we will ever attract the hardened racegoer to Arabian racing," he said. "I can often hear them grumble when an Arabian race is put on in England after a big thoroughbred handicap. It's not like in Dubai.
"I'm trying not to be harsh here, but sometimes on an average Arabian card here, there are some pretty ordinary riders and the field can get strung out. It can make for a pretty poor spectacle and looks a bit amateurish." Unlike in the UAE and France, Arabian racing in Britain is an amateur sport, with amateur prize money. For instance, if you have a thoroughbred racing licence, you cannot have Arabians in your stable, although professional jockeys can take part.
This rule is partly due to the possible threat of cross-contamination between the breeds, but it prevents a thoroughbred trainer from housing a couple of Arabians to race them as a hobby, if nothing else. The French have been breeding Arabians since Napoleon took a shine to the Mamluk cavalry during his Egyptian campaign, more than two centuries ago, and as a comparison the French stage 68 group races annually to Britain's eight. The French boast more than 200 Arabians in training, to Britain's 130, of which 35 are trained by Duffield and owned by Sheikh Hamdan.
"Anyone can buy an Arabian and race it here, but I suppose few can afford to go over to France and buy a regally-bred Arabian," Duffield said. "It wouldn't make financial sense, anyway, because most of the money on offer in Britain, at an average meeting, would be the equivalent to winning a rosette. "The problem is that we can't have many more races in England like Arabian day, or the President of the UAE Cup race at Ascot, which is worth £50,000, because there simply aren't enough quality horses here to fill those races.
"I don't think Arabian racing will grow at all over the next few years because of the recession. People are already looking into the cost of it all. "Much as we might think it is the case, a horse is not a necessity in life. These are very difficult times." If the state of Britain's Arabian racing is a weathervane to the economic situation as a whole then it is imperative to the growth of the sport that projects such as the International Arabian Day continue to be staged.
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed has established the Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival to run alongside the President of the UAE Cup, the series which was set up in 1994 by his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founder of the UAE. Both series provide an essential window into the sport and help spread Arabian culture into countries such as Ireland, Holland, Russia and the US. Hills warns, however, that the sport needs others to pick up the baton.
"Sponsors are trying very hard, especially Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi, and their work is fantastic. You've only got to look at Arabian day to see how it can work. "But if you take Arab owners and sponsors out of the equation, the sport would be in a parlous state. To a certain extent, you could say that about thoroughbred racing, too." firstname.lastname@example.org