Imagination Matches Purses on Saudi Cup Undercard

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Prince Bandar, Chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia | HK Strategies

LONDON, UK—New additions to the global program, in the era of the “super race,” have three options: blow the opposition out of the water; come up with something entirely different; or work together. But if the organisers of the Saudi Cup appears to have favoured the first, in offering Thoroughbreds the biggest prize in the history of the breed, then the $6.8-million undercard revealed on Monday shows that they intend to embrace both other approaches, too.

With elite European turf runners in mind, they have been at pains to stress the congenial nature of the dirt course at King Abdulaziz Racetrack, which will stage the inaugural $20-million showcase on Feb. 29. The supporting program, however, offers even those European horsemen lacking the nerve to switch a champion to a new surface every opportunity to share in the bonanza.

Certainly few among the dozens of trainers invited to the launch, at Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly, can have expected the most valuable of three new turf races to be a handicap over nearly two miles (actually 3000m, or 15 furlongs). From a total prize fund of $2.5 million, it will offer no less than $1.5 million to the winner—which extraordinary sum may well cause renewed inflation in what is already a very competitive market for Melbourne Cup types in Europe. (Albeit protocols for Southern Hemisphere horses, as opposed to European raiders who can return home, are unlikely to be in place for the first running.)

If the timing plainly makes Riyadh a feasible target after the Melbourne Cup in November, then the other two grass races work with the calendar by facing the other way. Purses of $1 million apiece ($600,000 to the winner) qualify both as natural springboards to big prizes on the Dubai World Cup card four weeks later. One is over 10.5 furlongs (2100m) and, as such, would work as an intermediate option for those targeting the turf prizes over 9f and 12f at Meydan. The other, at the intriguing distance of 6.75 furlongs (1350 metres), potentially falls within the ambit of both sprinters and milers.

The undercard is completed by two dirt events, a $1.5-million dash over six furlongs and an $800,000 mile race for 3-year-olds—intended as an ideal platform for candidates for the G2 UAE Derby.

Frankie Dettori was on hand to urge European horsemen to contemplate all the dirt options for their grass runners, acclaiming the course the best of its type he has sampled. “I've ridden numerous turf horses round there and they adapt very well,” the jockey said. “It's an amazing surface that bridges the gap. It'll be a very level playing field.”

These innovations will perhaps not be uniformly welcomed in Dubai, with some degree of dilution seeming inevitable in their local prep races. But at least the Saudi promoters have been animated, in the bigger picture, by a quest for synergy: most obviously, in slotting the main event halfway between the Pegasus and Dubai World Cups. At every level, after all, there could eventually be mutual benefits from a maturing regional program, as an incentive for longer migrations to the Gulf.

Besides, the hosts naturally have their own priorities. Some of these extend far beyond the racetrack, as was acknowledged by Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, Chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia. While the project had originated with his own organisation, it had been warmly embraced by the government “at a time when the economic and political environment is very much in favour of pushing initiatives of this kind.”

He added, “I see this very much as Vision 2030, as opening up. We are going through a transformation. We are learning. But there is a definite will to go there.”

Many of these broader themes were reprised from the Saudi Cup's launch at Saratoga last month. And there are obvious challenges for an event that reaches for the stars from a standing start. For one thing, everyone will obviously be hoping that the current instabilities in the region do not boil over; while reassurances were sought over the treatment to be expected by female visitors.

Prince Bandar welcomed such questions. “All equestrian sports in Saudi Arabia have always been open to male and female participation and attendance,” he said. “But what would be new, although we have women show jumpers and endurance riders, is female jockeys—so I would like to take the opportunity to invite owners and trainers to engage with some of the wonderful new talent that is now available to them around the world.”

But there will be no jockeys at all, without horses; and no horses, without a track. So the first imperative, in practical terms, was to guarantee a top-class turf course by February—even though it is still under construction.

Tom Ryan, appointed Director of Strategy and International Racing after building his reputation at Naas racecourse in Ireland, persuasively put any concerns to rest. “We have engaged with the world's best expertise, including the Sports Turf Research Institute, from the outset,” he said. “If the timescale appears tightish, from the traditional viewpoint, we actually have a longer period to settle the turf in [than Meydan] plus the benefit of their 10 to 15 years of knowhow. We have been very, very careful in the selection of material, particularly in the root zone, and the watering system is optimal to the last square millimetre. We're getting weekly reports and the stage we're at now puts us handsomely ahead of schedule.”

Ryan explained that it would have been possible to lay out the course earlier, but that exposing the young grass to the extremes of summer would have represented one step forward for two steps back. As it is, the preferred schedule permits growth towards a surface more akin to that familiar in Europe. With so many top-class riders wintering locally in Dubai, trials will be staged in January while preserving the inside racing line.

“We're very, very confident about the turf track, it's not something we've had a moment's doubt about,” Ryan added. “And the dirt track is so sweeping that the radius of the turf bends will be more generous than most U.K. courses. It won't have the tight bends of some American tracks, but will ride a nice, galloping track.”

Assuming that such valuable races will be oversubscribed, an evaluation committee will sit within a couple of days of the entry deadline on Jan. 7. The former senior handicapper at the British Horseracing Authority, Phil Smith, has been hired to supervise the local ratings and race program, and Ryan stressed that the order of elimination would not be determined by bald numbers.

“It won't be exact ratings,” he explained. “They will be a very strong element, but not exclusively so. This is a no-closed-doors scenario. We will use our best judgement to make sure we have the best spectacle and the most competitive races.”

That process should be most delicate in the handicap itself, a race that gives players below the elite level a fairytale chance to be first among equals—a point underlined by Harry Herbert, the meeting's Global Ambassador.

“It opens up to smaller trainers and owners the opportunity to race internationally,” he said. “We've seen that in the Melbourne Cup over the years, and that's what this whole thing is all about: giving people the opportunity to be part of a fantastic adventure.

“Everyone knows how important international racing has become over the past 25 years. Because it's not just about opening up racing communities, but whole countries and cultures. It's what the sport now is all about.”

“Our goal is for everyone who attends to absolutely enjoy their time in Saudi Arabia and book the race for the year after,” confirmed Prince Bandar. “That's what we're driving for. We think we've put together a team that know what they're doing, and that people can trust. We're confident we will have a very, very special event, regardless of the prizemoney.”

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