The Saudi Cup – A Race Meeting like no Other

With the rest of the wonderful British press seemingly allergic to giving anything “abroad” positive media coverage, it may be down to me to tell everyone about a great weekend’s racing here in Saudi Arabia, which was and is nothing like I expected. 

On Friday we had the International Jockeys Challenge, and for those who think this means nothing to anyone, try telling that to the combatants, who included an out-of retirement Damien Oliver, our own Ryan Moore and Saffie Osborne, South Africa’s up-and-coming star Rachel Venniker, and a long list of others. Although officially handicaps despite prize money of $400,000 per race, a deeper look showed me half a kilo (1lb) between all 14 runners in the first, a more realistic 6kg (13lb) in the second contest, half a kilo (1lb) in the third and a whole kilo (2lb) in the fourth! Closely matched contests if the weights are to be believed, and perhaps more competitive than we are sometimes used to seeing back in blighty, but we shall see.

Having been on a magical mystery tour on the media bus to get to the track (I don’t think they have satnav here yet) we arrived dressed accordingly, collar and tie, suit, shiny shoes, and all in scorching temperatures – thank goodness for anti-perspirant is all I (and those sitting near me) can say. The media room was heaving, with the standard bun fight for desk space but after a bit of pushing and shoving (literally) I finally settled down to see how the racing unfolded, with the jockey’s challenge followed by a Group One Arab race with $1,500,000 in total prize money – nice work if you can get it. 

Watching the earlier races to get a feel for the place, it was interesting to see some where nothing got involved from off the pace – and those where they finished with a rattle to get up late on, putting a match under any theory I may have had to help me on the big day Saturday. 

Our British riders didn’t fare as well as hoped (luckily you cannot bet here, or my patriotism could have been costly) – with Saffie Osborne picking up a solid third in the second leg before Ryan Moore failed to make the most of a chance on the appropriately named Ryan’s Party, with a disappointing fourth (though to be fair, the formbook suggested I had more chance than the horse did) – so no party tonight then Mr Moore?  Neither were successful in the last of the four races either as French jockey Maryline Eon was crowned Champion, the Ladies team took the honours (I got that bit right), and to my absolute delight (and a tear in my eye), Rachel Vennicker won the last on Cliffs Of Fury, gold-plating my view in the preview that the South African jockey has the brightest of futures.

On to the big day – all those early mornings, all those pot noodles, all that “numb bum” time on the flight led to this – a nine race card from 3.00pm to 8.40pm with eye-watering sums up for grabs. Once again I battled my way to a spot for the laptop (imagine the Harrods sale first day, a bit like that), but once I had staked a claim I was set up for the duration. No camera for me on a race day (it isn’t right to get in the way of those who are paid to take photos) but no harm in a few snaps for personal use with the phone as I went on my usual wander to see what the paying public got for their money. No bars (obviously) but there were a few food stalls selling what I think were kebabs, and the odd salad, though even more surprisingly they were giving away free fruit juice to anyone with a bit of a thirst, yours truly included. 

Searching around pre-race for a well-hidden souvenir shop (baseball caps are a weakness of mine), I came across a small on-course food court serving the likes of non-alcoholic cocktails (sorely tempting), a Mexican style food van (Chipotle Chicken Rice bowl for £8.50), a pizza van, fries van, and my own favourite Dusky’s, who sold me a delicious ribeye sandwich served with cheese and a portion of fries for a fraction less than a tenner. Just outside the course (don’t ask me why) there is a small shopping area with plenty of seating and stalls selling everything from honey (?) to coffee, ice-creams to burger meals – something for everyone but at £4.73 for an iced latte, the free fruit juice suddenly tasted even better. 

On to the rest of the facilities, and the die-hard racing fans had arrived and taken a seat in the grandstand three hours before the first contest (now that’s dedication), while the crowds continued to build as the day went on despite the scorching temperatures. 

When racing got underway at 3.00pm local time with a handicap over nine furlongs, we  had a thriller of a finish as Aljamaanee under French based Italian Cristian Demuro outfought locally based Alexis Moreno, to set the rest of the day up very nicely. I watched the Arab race with complete ignorance, but it was very warmly supported by the crowd and by owners and trainers too, with Group One kudos and the small matter of $2,000,000 in win and place prize money. Pure-bred Arabian racing has been growing slowly in the UK for many years, but it may be worth the “powers in the towers” looking at giving it a bit more support as we look to attract more and new people to the sport we all adore.

Enough waffle for now, and on to the big races where I hoped to find at least one winner – though only time would tell on that one. Starting with the Saudi Derby, all eyes were on the currently unbeaten Forever Young, supposed the next Equinox or Almond Eye, which is high praise indeed. He had not reached anything even close to their level yet, but looked the part in his work, making this his best chance yet to lay down a marker at a higher level. Very late off for reasons unknown (I was outside making sure I had a good view) the anticipation kept building and boy, did they get a race for the ages. The favourite started badly and had to be rousted along early doors which is never a good sign as Set Up went to the lead, followed by Bentornato and then Book Em Danno. The American Pasco Stakes winner looked all set to take home the prize with the jolly looking flat to the boards, but despite his jockey looking as if he gave up for a fraction of a second, the horse was having none of it and knuckled down as the leader ran out of steam, running on at the death to get up by a head and land the odds. It may have been a heart in the mouth moment, but all history will tell you is I suggested the winner and the third, and I’ll take that at such a difficult meeting. 

Thankfully for me (and probably for you as well) I only cover the Group One’s on the dirt unless we have a runner, though congratulations to the Japanese for winning the dirt sprint with Remake, third last year and getting his revenge in 2024. You really cannot dislike the Japanese, they love their racing, bring fans wherever they go, enjoy every moment, and are as polite as can be – years of careful breeding and investment now see their racing industry at or very near the top of the World – perhaps we could bring some of them in to sort ours out, not the daftest idea I have ever had but unlikely to be listened to. 

Following a break where we were treated to local singing, dancing and (not kidding you) sword waving as part of the cultural experience, the racing came back with the turf sprint where surely the Europeans could start to make their mark? As you know I was cheering for Matilda Picotte but I won’t pretend I didn’t break out a smile when Annaf stormed home to land the close to a million pounds first prize. Anyone who reads my articles regularly knows I think trainerMiuck Appleby is one of the best at either improving a horse from another yard or at least getting them back to their best, and here is some more evidence after Rossa Ryan steered the five-year-old home quadrupling his career earnings in one race, and all after bring bought for 16,000 Guineas after failing to even run for Owen Burrows. Class act is Mick, and I genuinely could not be more pleased for him, while my each way alternative followed him home – and my win selection was a respectable fifth.

Next up was all about Luxembourg for me – if the O’Brien colt failed to win I might have to go into hiding there! Seriously though, he was the best horse in the race but sadly I could tell he really wasn’t that interested after he moved up to take the lead before being swallowed up and eventually finishing fourth. The UK still ruled with Spirit Dancer winning for Richard Fahey, and part-owner Sir Alex Ferguson (see picture) the centre of all the post-race celebrations as once again, my each way alternative finished in front of my first choice selection.

Having “sensibly” given the turf handicap a miss I sat back and watched Ryan Moore remind everyone why he is the best jockey in the World as he somehow conjured a winning run from Tower Of London despite a much blocked run, to blag the £1,181,102 first prize, getting up late and rubbing my nose in it at the same time. He looks likely to take high rank in the staying races this season and is one to keep on the right side of throughout 2024 on this evidence. 

“Just” the big one left, a mere $10,000,000 to the winner, and as it’s on the dirt one where the form is not on my daily radar, this contest was a bit of an unknown quantity. In my totally biased opinion, they went off far too fast from the off and never settled, setting the race up for something with more stamina than speed – and so it proved. Despite the lack of betting here, as a nation they do seem to have a love for the racehorse, and the roar that went up as the appropriately named Saudi Crown hit the front was heart-warming if short lived, as both Japanese raider Ushba Tesora and then America’s Senor Buscador passed him close home. As for my suggestions (White Abarrio and Carmel Road), both ran acceptably without ever really threatening to win, and we all leave here unharmed and ready to fight another day.

Conclusions:

I had never been or even thought of going to Saudi Arabia to be honest, but the suggestion was made, and you have to try something yourself before making a decision. It is still very much in its infancy as a Country when it comes to tourism, and I would have been happier if there had been somewhere walkable from the hotel, but that may just be me being picky. All the people I met were welcoming and friendly – smile and its catching is my motto – and I cannot knock them at all for trying to solve any issues we may have had. The roads are “interesting” to put it politely, and I am not convinced there are any rules, but once we got to the racetrack, the facilities were superb. A working media room with desk space is always my priority, and I got that, Wi-Fi check, plugs yes, and that means I can do my job – which is what I am here for after all. After that we were looked after with soft drinks pretty much on demand, a coffee machine in the media room, lunch and dinner on racedays, and a short walk to the parade ring and then to watch the races live. All in all it was an experience and a trip I am really glad I made and one I hope to do for many years to come. After five years they have transformed the racing landscape considerably, but they are fully aware they can do more and make things even better – hopefully I can be one of those who reports on their progress over the years ahead. 

Sean Trivass was a guest of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia and would like to thank them for their hospitality, with a special mention for Melissa, Sarah, and Liz for all their help. 

All photos credit Liesl King- thanks Liesl.

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