By Gavin Gibbon
Tom Ryan, Saudi Jockey Club's director of strategy and international racing, wants kingdom to be 14th top tier nation for horse racing
Horse racing has the potential to challenge football as Saudi Arabia’s number one sport, according to Tom Ryan, Saudi Jockey Club’s director of strategy and international racing.
Ryan is one of the driving forces behind the Saudi Cup, which will run at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh later this month and, with a $20 million prize pot, will become the richest horse race in the world.
Held under the patronage of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi Cup is the first international race weekend to be staged in Saudi Arabia
The two-day race meeting includes the Kingdom Day STC International Jockeys Challenge on the Friday as a prelude to Saturday’s eight card contest, which culminates in the prestigious Saudi Cup.
Ryan told Arabian Business: “The Saudi Cup, generally speaking, they want to run as a very successful event in its own right, but I think it’s going to be a catalyst for a wider industry development and ultimately Saudi Arabia wants to progress to the international structures and become a leading horse racing nation like the US and Ireland and England and France, Australia and Japan and all these.
“There’s 13 top tier countries around the world in terms of horse racing and they want to join that grouping as the 14th nation over the next number of years.
“They (organisers) had an aim to create a catalyst for that and this event is hopefully going to show the international community what it’s capable of doing and what comes as the plan unfolds.”
The total fund for the Saturday of the Saudi Cup race weekend stands at $29.2m, while both days are expected to welcome a combined 20,000 spectators.
The racing club in Riyadh is 50 years old and recently installed a new 1,800m track – the race meeting at the end of this month will be the first time a turf race has ever been held in the kingdom.
Ryan said the event has captured the attention, locally and internationally, and hoped it could be the springboard to launching horse racing across the country.
“If Saudi Arabia can rise up and attain the level that it’s set out to achieve, it just opens up another substantial market, at a world level, for bloodstock and horse trading in that sense,” he said.
“It’s a sport that internally is very well accepted. Everybody knows how close the horse is to people in this part of the world, the horse has religious connotations really in that respect, and I think it’s one sport that can really grow.
“In Saudi Arabia at the moment, let’s be very honest, you have soccer and everything else is just a distance behind and I think horse racing really has the capacity to come up as the second sport behind soccer and play a very pivotal role in society here generally.”
Saudi Arabia’s big day of racing will take place four weeks after the Pegasus World Cup, but a month before the Dubai World Cup.
The event has attracted sponsorship from global brands such as BMW, Rolls-Royce and Longines, as well as Saudi companies such as STC and Saudi Air.
While the finishing touches are being put to television deals that will see the race meeting beamed live across the world.
Ryan said: “One of the things we’ve been charged with here is to turn horse racing into a sustainable industry, not just a sport that has money going in one direction.
“It won’t really be until the second year when we have an infantry of data and history behind us that we can really start squeezing value out of these partnerships.
“We have set about walking towards a model that is sustainable over time.”