By Ed McNamara
It’s about money, the biggest purse in horse racing history.
It’s about change, an attempt to upgrade the image of a nation vilified for the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights abuses and the suppression of women.
It’s about getting the world to check out the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a mysterious land that last month opened its borders to tourists for the first time.
The new event is the $20 million, 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup on Feb. 29, which will award $10 million to the winner.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, his country’s United States ambassador from 1983-2005, is the chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia. In August at Saratoga, he said he wants people “to come and take a closer look at our culture and our country: explore a place they’d never thought of visiting and perhaps see it anew.”
A small but symbolically significant breakthrough would be a female riding against males there. Prince Bandar told the BBC that female jockeys would be “most welcome, and that men and women would be treated equally.’’ British trainer Jamie Osborne said if he enters a horse on Saudi Cup day that Scotswoman Nicola Currie would be aboard.
The Saudis are trying to follow the blueprint of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, who in 1996 created the Dubai World Cup, whose $4 million purse was then a record. Besides putting Dubai on the international racing map and keeping it there, the World Cup raised its profile as a potential base for international corporations and as a vacation destination. Like Dubai, Saudi Arabia wants to diversify its economy and not be so dependent on oil by tapping into tourism and entertainment.
The Saudi Cup replaces Gulfstream Park’s Pegasus World Cup as the most lucrative race. In 2017, the $12 million Pegasus pushed aside Dubai as No. 1, then raised its purse to $16 million in 2018 before cutting back to $9 million this past January.
To create worldwide buzz, you need name horses. Midnight Bisou, McKinzie, Gronkowski and Tacitus are targeting the Saudi Cup, and Maximum Security, Bravazo, Mr. Money and Higher Power reportedly are possibilities.
Besides McKinzie, second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, two-time Triple Crown winner and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is sending Haskell Invitational runner-up Mucho Gusto to the Saudi Cup. He intends to skip the Pegasus and try to run in the Dubai World Cup also.
“That’s the plan,” Baffert said in a phone interview. “We’re all in. First, you have to have a good horse. We’ve been to Dubai, so this is a challenge. A new challenge, and you like challenges.
“It’ll be exciting to go, and then you’re there, and you have Dubai a month away. It’s a two-race deal.”
The American runners will face an international field. In an email, Alastair Donald, managing director of the England-based International Racing Bureau, said: “Early days now for the Saudi Cup and its supporting races, because the races won’t close until early January, but there has been some interest from most leading trainers over here.”
Among them are John Gosden and Charlie Appleby. Gosden has won three Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes and five Breeders’ Cup races. Like Gosden, Appleby has won the Epsom Derby, and he has two Breeders’ Cup trophies.
Jeff Bloom runs Bloom Racing, which co-owns Midnight Bisou. The 4-year-old’s runner-up finish after a bad trip in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff all but ended her Horse of the Year chances, and she was scheduled to be sold as a potential broodmare. Bloom and his partners decided to keep her in training and run her for the first time against males.
“We’re going to start off in the Saudi Cup,” Bloom told bloodhorse.com. “It’s as set in stone as anything can be. We love the fact it’s a mile and an eighth. It should be right up her alley.”
Tom Ludt is the president of U.S. operations for Phoenix Thoroughbreds, which owns Gronkowski, runner-up in this year’s Dubai World Cup and to Triple Crown winner Justify in last year’s Belmont Stakes.
“We’re international players, and we love this,” Ludt said. “This is what the industry needs. This is what the game needs.”
The Saudi Cup will have a maximum field of 14, and the second-through 10th-place finishers will share half of the $20 million pot. There are no entry fees, and the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia will pay for all shipping costs along with flights and hotel accommodations for the horses’ connections. Including the seven dirt and turf stakes on the undercard, Saudi Cup day will hand out $29.6 million.
“As long as they’re willing to put up races like this, it’s good for the game,” Baffert said. “It keeps horses racing longer. They’re worth more in the stallion barn than when they are racing, so this is very sporting of Saudi Arabia to have older horses running there.
“All I know is we’re going to go, and it’s no different than running in Dubai. We’ve been there so many times.”
The site in the capital city of Riyadh is King Abdulaziz Racetrack, founded in 2003 and named for Prince Bandar’s great-grandfather King Abdulaziz bin Saud, a warrior on horseback who in 1932 founded Saudi Arabia. Its 1¼-mile, one-turn main track was patterned after Belmont Park, and it’s a favorite of superstar Frankie Dettori, who has ridden there for many years.
“It has big, wide, sweeping bends, and a 2½-furlong straight. A proper track,” Dettori said.
“Of all the dirt tracks I’ve ridden, it’s the one I like best. You can win from the front and from behind – it’s a fair track. The other thing I like is that the kickback is so much less than on other dirt tracks. I usually ride there with only one pair of goggles. I rode several European grass horses on it, and they handled it very well.”
The Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian, the foundation sires of the thoroughbred, have roots in the Middle East. Arab culture always has revered the thoroughbred, which Muslims believe that Allah created horses from the south wind “to be the lord of all other animals.”
“Our people have raced our horses across the dunes for many centuries,” Prince Bandar said. “We are going through a transformation in the Kingdom. We are learning, but we are opening up and there is a political will to go there.”
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.