Saudi passion parades at city track
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. “We would love to have more people here because it’s an amazing night out for entertainment,” he says. “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 theatres 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