Passion on parade at ‘ best kept secret’
Horses round the track in the soft light of an afternoon sun as Riyadh’s “best kept secret”, the King Abdulaziz Racetrack, begins another weekend of action.
The horses of wealthy Saudis have been major players at the world’s biggest racing spectacles, from Royal Ascot to Longchamp and Melbourne.
On home turf, Friday afternoon racing in the Saudi capital is a more low-key affair.
Betting is banned and the buzz is somewhat muted early in the season, but race fans still crowd the rails for a glimpse of the passing thoroughbreds.
The modern facility surrounded by greenery on the edge of Riyadh offers respite from the highways and urban sprawl of a city carved out of the desert.
“Unfortunately, it’s the best kept secret,” says track manager Robert Turman, who moved to Saudi Arabia after retiring from the racing business in the United States.
“Their goal here is really to achieve international standards and they’re really doing a great job.”
Horse racing is one of the few diversions in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol, public cinemas and theaters are banned.
Professional sport is otherwise limited to football, with women not allowed inside stadiums in a country where tradition prevents unrelated men and women from mixing.
But such practices are not rigidly in force everywhere.
At the track, men and women sit together in the open grandstand, where a sparse Friday crowd of dozens has gathered for a 10-race card.
Single men get in free and families pay only 10 riyals ($2.67), a bargain in an economy whose collapsed oil revenues have led to widespread cutbacks.
“This is a beautiful place to be” in a city that otherwise lacks excitement or charm, says Ben van der Klift, a Dutch financial director working in the kingdom.
“And if you bring your friends, you can have lunch ... watch and have some fun,” says the 57-year-old, who with neighbors has set up a picnic on tables between the grandstand and the track.
Racing is in the blood of Saudis like Faris al-Thiyabe, 28, whose fondness for horses has translated into a job at the track.
Al-Thiyabe announces the races in English as they are replayed on a giant screen near the finish line, just moments after the live race call in Arabic ends with congratulations to the winner.
“My father had a stable,” he said, explaining how he inherited his passion for horses.
In the absence of gambling, which boosts incomes in American and European racing, Turman says the Saudi sport is fueled by something more fundamental.
“That’s where the passion for the horse racing really comes in,” he says, as jockeys ride their mounts toward the starting gate for another race in a long Saudi tradition of horsemanship.
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