BENEATH the balmy Saudi sun, glitzy King Abdulaziz Racecourse prepares to host one of the world’s biggest Flat festivals.
It feels a million miles away from the snow, ice and torrential rain that has played havoc with UK racecards this winter.
But there will still be some familiar faces on show at the multi-million pound bash.
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More than 1,000 horses from 19 countries have been entered for next month’s Saudi Cup meeting.
They have been drawn to the Middle East by a staggering £22.3million in prize-money on the day of the big race alone.
The inaugural Saudi Cup 12 months ago was such a success it is no surprise to see some of the world’s best have been tempted back to Riyadh on February 19 and 20.
And Tom Ryan, director of strategy and international racing for the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, is delighted with the entries.
He said: “It’s unbelievably exciting to see the quality of the entries and I’m confident it’s going to be a roaring success.”
The main event, the £14.6m Saudi Cup, run on dirt, has caught the eye of many top US trainers.
Kenny McPeek has entered last year’s Preakness hero Swiss Skydiver, Brad Cox could run Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Knicks Go and Bob Baffert has targeted the 1m1f prize with the exciting Charlatan.
Some of Britain’s biggest trainers are also responsible for high profile entries in The Saudi Cup among a list of more than 100.
William Haggas has given Champion Stakes winner Addeybb an entry, while John Gosden could saddle Mishriff, runner-up in the Saudi Derby at the meeting 12 months ago.
That confidence comes from a successful meeting last year when the organisers delivered their dream to create an event to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest racing festivals.
Ryan explained: “Last year exceeded expectations.
“If you go back to the very start of this concept, there was an idea to run the world’s most valuable race on dirt.
“Once we had the jewel in the crown we built around it to create the overall meeting.
“To get the geographical interest we knew we had to have a turf track and not to forget the Arabian racing.
“All of a sudden we had a major event across two days.
“It all came together in six months where you could maybe argue it took other countries ten years to get to that level.
“There was a standard we had to meet. The standard of those international carnivals — the Breeders’ Cup, Melbourne Cup, Hong Kong, Japan, Dubai — and, I believe, we did get there.
“I think the industry was taken by surprise by how good it was.
“I saw tears in the eyes of some of the local owners and trainers here. They couldn’t believe Saudi Arabia would host some of the best horses in the world. The most pleasing part to me really only hit home in recent weeks when we got the entries for this year.”
There are eight international races on the card, plus a four-race jockeys’ challenge — also featuring some international stars — on the opening day.
Last year New Zealander Lisa Allpress become the first female jockey to win a race in Saudi Arabia.
German-based Swiss jockey Sibylle Vogt defeated the likes of Frankie Dettori, Yutake Take and Olivier Peslier to triumph overall in the challenge.
Such a victory would have been unthinkable in Saudi Arabia not so long ago.
Ryan, who had previously spent 13 years as manager at Naas racecourse in Ireland, said: “Saudi has an aim to open up all activities to all genders, so to have female riders come here and compete as equals — and to have two of the four races won by female riders was unbelievable.”
This year the opening day also features a new $500,000 race exclusively for emerging nations like Norway, Spain and Greece.
Ryan added: “We felt it was a great opportunity to bring countries that wouldn’t ordinarily get a chance to perform on the highest stage.
“In a 14-runner race there’s the potential for eight nations to be represented.”
British talent is well represented in the supporting races. July Cup winner Oxted, Ayr Gold Cup hero Nahaarr, John Smith’s Cup victor Sinjaari and Prince Of Arran, placed in three Melbourne Cups, all have entries.
The organisers of the meeting, headed by Jockey Club chairman HRH Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, have proved adept at putting on a world-class event from nothing last year.
But this year there’s the small matter of a global pandemic to overcome.
However, Ryan is confident the event will run smoothly.
He said: “We will be creating event bubbles to allow attendees to move freely within certain parameters, while keeping everyone as safe as possible.”
Saudi Arabia is fast becoming a racing-mad nation and Ryan added: “Prince Bandar wants to create that date in the diary so The Saudi Cup is for Saudi what the Melbourne Cup is for Australia.
“People know it’s on and they either come to see it or stop to watch it somewhere.”
It could well become the race that stops the nation. But there doesn’t appear to be any stopping Saudi Arabia’s ambition to join the sport’s Premier League.
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