'The Result Gives Us A Global Spread' – Ryan Thrilled With Saudi Cup Progress

Tom Ryan | Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia

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When Panthalassa (Jpn) (Lord Kanaloa {Jpn}) provided Japan with a breakthrough victory in the $20-million G1 Saudi Cup, Tom Ryan, one of the key men behind the lucrative two-day meeting, punched the proverbial air.

Of all the results possible in the big race, a Japanese victory would have been right up there as the most desirable for a relatively new fixture on the international racing circuit, as extravagant the prize-money may be.

Nobody understands this better than the County Tipperary native who swapped managing Naas racecourse for his current role as the Racing Advisor to the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia a little over four years ago.

Ryan and his team have worked tirelessly to provide the Saudi Cup fixture with a foothold on the international programme in that time and, along with Panthalassa's Saudi Cup win that spearheaded a Japanese-trained treble on the evening, the victory of Breeders' Cup winner Elite Power (Curlin) and a local success in the Saudi Derby all helped point to the fact that such status is being secured.

“We're in year four now and it's hard to believe that it's been four years since I left Naas racecourse to come out here,” a wide-eyed Ryan said after racing on Saturday.

“Tonight's result gives us a global spread–America won the Saudi Cup in year one, England in year two, the Middle East last year and now Japan. It gives the event an unbelievable spread.”

He added, “I am also delighted for Juddmonte to get their winner [Elite Power in the G3 Riyadh Dirt Sprint ] as they've tried very hard to. I felt very bad about the fact that Mandaloun (Into Mischief) got delayed going back home to America last year after running in the Saudi Cup. Obviously that was out of our control but I was very happy to see Elite Power winning for them tonight.

“On the whole, the event has been fantastic and the enthusiasm for racing in Saudi Arabia is exploding. Our job now is to harness that and hopefully give them a platform for it.”

The progress that has been made in a short space of time can largely be put down to the huge confidence trainers and jockeys have had in the racing surface at Riyadh racecourse, particularly on the dirt track, which was evident when Frankie Dettori described it as 'one of the best in the world' at a press conference on Thursday.

That, along with a developing programme and colossal prize-money, has provided enough of a carrot for the international runners to take up the challenge. A number of those box office names helped make this year's meeting one to remember.

Ryan said, “We've been very well-supported from the outset. The Saudi Cup is the most important race on the card but we had a Breeders' Cup sprint winner here today and the Turf Sprint is a Group 1 in all but name. That race started out as a bit of a play thing at 1,351 metres and now it's a Group 3 but, the quality of field it is attracting, it could be a Group 1.”

He added, “The track was always our core asset–the dirt track in particular. We took a chance here in developing the turf track on the inside and that has matured beautifully. From that point of view, the international riders have been happy from day one to endorse the dirt track as possibly the best in the world. We added the turf track and took a chance that first year with an expansive race programme.”

Whether it was races for Arabian-breds, contests confined to runners who were bred locally, sprints, marathons and everything in between, you name it, there was a race for it in Riyadh. Not only that, chances were that there was a pretty lucrative purse up for grabs as well. Take for example the fact there was an Arabian race on dirt worth $1 million on Friday while Saturday's Group 1 Classic on turf was run for $2 million. Staggering stuff.

A local expert told Nick Luck that one of the main reasons why people follow Arabian racing is that the majority of the runners are seasoned campaigners that tend to be kept in training that bit longer. The Gulf's answer to jumps racing back home in Britain and Ireland if you like. Given the average age for Saturday's 12-runner Group 1 was six, it was hard to disagree with that logic.

However, what our expert failed to tell us about Arabian-breds is that they are flighty little buggers. Just ask the stalls handler who had his leg broken by one of the runners on Friday.

None of the Japanese-trained horses were reported to have wreaked such havoc this week but Panthalassa did win the Saudi Cup as a 6-year-old and that could go some way to explaining the growing affection and association that fans from that part of the world have built up with him.

Not only that, but his stablemate Bathrat Leon (Jpn) (Kizuna {Jpn}) won the 1351 Turf Sprint as a 5-year-old while Japan's third winner of the evening, the Yasutoshi Ikee-trained Silver Sonic (Jpn) (Orfevre {Jpn}), took out the G3 Red Sea Turf H. at the grand old age of seven.

Yoshito Yahagi | Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia

If it's not the horses that send the Japanese racing fans wild, perhaps it's the great characters associated with the game, and they don't come much better than the Saudi Cup-winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi.

Just about the only man who could pull off a grey suit bedecked with a red and white-striped tie and topped off with a bright purple hat, Yahagi let everyone in on the secret behind his hat-wearing habits after Panthalassa's triumph.

“When I started training, nobody knew who I was. That way, how people came to recognise me, was when I started wearing hats. Today, I wore the same hat that I wore to the Breeders' Cup. I have 200 to 300 hats.”

Long gone are the days where Yahagi needs to wear an illuminous hat to get himself recognised. His achievements speak volumes. Similarly, the Saudi Cup has now become a recognised event, and Ryan says that it is here to stay.

“When you think about it, we started in April 2019 with one race and now we have ended up with a two-day festival with people coming from all over the world. Even look at that jockeys' challenge yesterday, that is turning into a proper test–dirt, turf, sprint and middle-distance races–and we have jockeys begging us to get into it. It's become a real spectacle.

“It was great that the locals got a winner. We always felt that the Saudi Derby was probably the race that they could grab a hold of and win. There are just plenty of positives to take from the two days and there was a huge crowd again here tonight. It's really positive.”

He added, “You see the guys here who are so active in the horses-in-training sales back home, in particular looking for those dirt types, and it's very easy to see what pedigrees go on it. For the horses who have been imported, it does take them a little bit of time to acclimatise, we have seen that, but a bit of patience goes a long way.”

Hapipi Go Lucky (Ire) (Mehmas {Ire}) is one such graduate. A winner for Johnny Murtagh when trained in Ireland, she was sourced at the Tattersalls Horses-In-Training Sale in 2011 for just 11,000gns, but landed a $400,000 handicap for her new connections on Friday.

Such success can only be a benefit to the local owners and trainers, who will doubtlessly feel they have a chance to get in on the action in the coming years. But it's the Panthalassas, Elite Powers and the Country Grammers of this world that will help drive the Saudi Cup's status as a global event, and Ryan has put together a team with a track record of delivering the goods.

“It started from year one–we put the horse at the very centre of our efforts. The trust with the horse and then hopefully the people will follow. A mention for Emer Fallon, a fellow Irish native, she does amazing work with the trainers, who all know her. The jockeys get on great with her as well. She follows the form on a global level and she's really the one who sets the tone for all of this and we just rally around her in terms of the conversations that need to be had to attract people to the meeting.”

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