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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Arab states set the standard for European winter racing

It's set to be a big year for the Arabian Gulf with the FIFA World Cup concluding the year just before Christmas. But increasingly, the Gulf states are emerging as a horseracing destination for winter and early spring.

What began as an extension of Dubai's development as a sporting venue to encourage sports tourism has become a bragging contest between the oil-rich states of Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, to stage the richest races designed to draw international support, and so foster their own home-grown racing. Qatar, you may recall, sponsors Europe's most prestigious race in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, at Longchamp.

Dubai's Meydan remains the overall market leader, with a season from November to March that culminates in the Dubai World Cup, a race fixture with a staggering purse of $30.5m, including the feature event at $12m. Small wonder several British and Irish trainers send away teams there for the duration.

Qatar is also pushing at the door of international competition, although its strength may currently lie in purebred Arabian racing. Nevertheless, its two courses at Al Rayyan and Al Uqda stage a full programme of racing, around which the highlights are the HH Amir Trophy over 1m 4f, and its corresponding equivalent for Arabians, both $1m races in a card worth $3.5m.

Bahrain meanwhile has taken a less showy approach, focused around the Group 3 Bahrain International Trophy, and a fresh 10 race series for horses rated 85-100, with each race worth £50,000, and additional series bonuses.

The swankiest however has to be the Saudi Cup, the richest race in the world, preparing for its third running in 2022 on Saturday February 26th at King Abdulaziz racecourse. $35.1m is on offer over two days of racing, including the $20m Saudi Cup, recently promoted to Group I status. The irony is that in its short life, the Cup has yet to see paying spectators. Even now, tickets are not yet available to purchase for an event not eight weeks hence.

Mishriff, winner of last year's behind closed doors Saudi Cup, is tilting at the same prize again; no surprise there from the Gosden camp. But the event is also attracting wider support from trainers without Arab owners.

Whilst the Arabian Gulf presents no real competition for Group standard horses as its season falls neatly outside the turf season in northern Europe, it's a simple fact that trainers and owners can be lured to a warm climate with horses of a more moderate class to pay their way during the winter. The explosion of prize money is to be applauded, not least through its further support through travel expenses and so on. However, those running all-weather courses in Britain, Germany and France might in a few years time be left with a rump of poor quality racing when the cream has been siphoned off to run further south. There's plenty an owner who could be persuaded to shrug off the grey skies and damp of Wolverhampton for the glamour of the sandy states.

Thirty-five years ago, this was happening to the UK market when British trainers took teams to exotic Cagnes-sur-Mer. The advent of AW racing at Southwell, Lingfield and Wolverhampton saw off that threat, but with Arab connections throughout the key influencers among British trainers, the challenge laid down by the Arab racing authorities is both real and an admirable statement of intent. Their plan is to excite and attract trainers of listed and group quality horses, who will supplement their champions with lesser lights able to make up the numbers.

Britain's response to date has been the creation of the All-Weather Championships, a creditable attempt to reward those that frequent the 200 or so AW fixtures with seven races worth £395,000. By comparison with other flat races in the domestic market at this time of year, this is a major pay day, but by international standards, it falls somewhat short.

In the parochial world of low stakes flat racing, this notion might seem fanciful. However, the obstacles to sustaining a viable training business in the UK are already high. There has been a steady leeching of talent across to France where lower property prices and higher prize money and premiums are more attractive. It is but a short step to travel further still to countries where English is a leading language.

The world is becoming a smaller place, even if current travel constraints make international travel harder than usual. But Covid won't be around forever. The northern racing states that rely upon AW fodder to feed their betting-based business models may have to look to their laurels sooner than they think.

The Arabs are coming.

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