By Gavin Gibbon
Tom Ryan, Saudi Jockey Club's director of strategy and international racing, explains how the $20m Saudi Cup - the richest horse race in the world - will put the kingdom on the map
Saudi Arabia is no stranger to re-writing the rule book when it comes to shaking up the sporting world.
Over the last 12 months alone, the kingdom has cemented its position as a mainstay on the Formula E circuit, with ambitious plans to add Qiddiya, on the outskirts of Riyadh, to the lucrative Formula One roster.
It landed a heavy blow on the boxing establishment by hosting the much-anticipated heavyweight rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, at Diriyah, near Jeddah.
The country scored as the choice venue for the high profile friendly match between Argentina and Brazil in December, while it was reported that the Spanish Football Federation will earn $134m for taking the country’s Super Cup competition 6,400km away from Spain to be played in the kingdom for the next three years.
Golf too played a masterstroke by luring the likes of world number one Brooks Koepka and giants of the sport, including Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Shane Lowry to Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, the “crown jewel” of the country’s new development, King Abdullah Economic City.
Now it is the turn of horse racing. And there are twenty million reasons to believe the Saudi Cup will become the next permanent fixture on the Saudi sporting calendar.
Held under the patronage of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi Cup, which will run at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, is the first international race weekend to be staged in Saudi Arabia over February 28-29.
And with a prize pot of $20m (there is $29.2m across the eight-race card), it will become the richest race in the world, surpassing the Pegasus World Cup in Florida, which was the world’s richest race in 2018 before deciding to split its $16m fund across two races in 2019 (PWC further slashed the prize purse this year to the $3m Pegasus World Cup and $1m Pegasus Turf World Cup). It even trumps the $12m Dubai World Cup by some considerable margin.
The prize for the winning horse will be $10m, with horses down to 10th place sharing another $10m between them.
And it has the potential to be part of the greatest horse racing meeting of the year, according to Tom Ryan, Saudi Jockey Club’s director of strategy and international racing.
Ryan, who managed the Naas racecourse in Ireland’s County Kildare for 13 years, tells Arabian Business: “It has exceeded our expectations to say the least. They had an aim to run the richest race in the world which the Saudi Cup is in its own right and obviously it’s a very attractive pot in terms of prize money, which is a key factor.
“I think it has the potential to be one of the best quality race meetings in the world this year, led by the Saudi Cup itself.”
Entries to the featured 1,800m (1m 1f) contest on the dirt were made by the owners of 143 horses, representing four continents, 16 countries and more than 60 trainers around the globe and were whittled down via an invitation process to feature multiple Grade 1-winning mare Midnight Bisou (USA), trained by Steve Asmussen, Grade 1 Cigar Mile winner and four-time Grade 1 star, Maximum Security (USA), prepared by Jason Servis, and the Bob Baffert-trained Breeder’s Cup Classic runner up, McKinzie (USA).
The first turf races to ever be held in Saudi Arabia have received an impressive list of entries.
The 2,100m (1m 2½f) $2.5m Mohamed Yousuf Al Naghi Motors Cup entry list includes Aidan O’Brien’s incredibly tough mare, Magic Wand (IRE), who ended a hectic Australian campaign with victory in the Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes in November, as well as her stablemate, Anthony Van Dyck (IRE), the Epsom Derby winner.
Successful in the Singspiel Stakes at Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse, Benbatl (GB), trained by Godolphin’s Saeed Bin Suroor, will switch from turf to dirt and runs in the Saudi Cup. While Italian superstar, Frankie Dettori; 11-time British Classic-winning rider, Ryan Moore; four-time Breeders’ Cup-winning Frenchman, Olivier Peslier, and, from America, the most successful Breeders’ Cup jockey of all time, Mike Smith, are all confirmed to take part over the two-day event.
Ryan says: “To get to this standard in year one has been really surprising and encouraging.
“Let’s be very honest, the main race wasn’t too hard to sell. But I think the way we went about it through the summer and the autumn last year, we were upwardly mobile, we were present at all the major events and we took the time to go and meet the trainers, meet the owners and put a personal touch to the approach. I think that’s something that has really served us well.”
Some 10,000 people are expected through the gates on both days with expected VIP guests including Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum; and Ireland’s leading thoroughbred stud owner John Magnier.
“All the big operators are due to be here, all the leading trainers. It’s been very positive,” says Ryan.
This includes seven of the best female jockeys in the world, who will be joined by seven of their male counterparts in a four-race international challenge meeting as part of the Saudi Cup race weekend.
The Kingdom Day STC International Jockeys Challenge will kickstart Saudi Cup weekend.
Held over four races of an eight-race card at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, each leg of the Challenge carries a prize fund of $400,000 while the overall winning jockey stands to land a further $30,000 winner’s purse.
Ryan says: “The women and the men compete as equals, but obviously because of Saudi Arabia’s more progressive view on life now and maybe where they’ve come from – it’s only a couple of short years ago when women couldn’t work or drive – now they see seven female jockeys travelling from all over the world to compete in a jockeys challenge like this... It’s seen as a real landmark occasion.”
The all-star female line-up includes Japanese headline grabber Nanako Fujita; French sensation, Mickaëlle Michel; and three-time New Zealand champion, Lisa Allpress.
Other contestants include the USA Grade 1 winner, Sophie Doyle, plus the reigning British all-weather champion apprentice, Nicola Currie, and the Swiss-born but German-based Pattern-winning rider, Sibylle Vogt. Canadian legend Emma-Jayne Wilson, winner of over 1,500 races in North America, completes the female line-up.
“You’re looking at the very best the world has to offer,” adds Ryan.
It is all part of a plan to boost horse racing in the kingdom by showcasing the sport to a local and international audience.
“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,” says Ryan.
“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.
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 says the event has captured the attention, locally and internationally, and hopes it can 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.
The finishing touches are being put to television deals that will see the race meeting beamed live across the world.
Ryan says: “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.”