Pas­sion on pa­rade at ‘ best kept se­cret’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Riyadh

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.

Dogs com­pete in a sled and ski­jor­ing race in the vil­lage of Kad­nikovo out­side Yeka­ter­in­burg, Rus­sia, on Satur­day.

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