Saudi pas­sion pa­rades at city track

Kuwait Times - - NEWS -

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 neigh­bours has set up a picnic on ta­bles be­tween the grand­stand and the track. For a more high-brow at­mos­phere, a glassed-in club­house al­lows horse own­ers and roy­als to watch races in cin­ema-style seats while be­ing served tra­di­tional Ara­bic cof­fee. Among the guests is Prince Miteb bin Ab­dul­lah whose fa­ther, the late king Ab­dul­lah, kept his own horses and founded the Eques­trian Club of Riyadh more than 50 years ago. Af­ter he as­sumed the throne in 2005, the king or­dered the con­struc­tion of the cur­rent fa­cil­ity, which was named af­ter the founder of mod­ern Saudi Ara­bia, the club’s web­site says.

Horses have been cen­tral to Saudi life for cen­turies and the king­dom is famed for its strong desert-bred Ara­bi­ans from which the thor­ough­breds are de­scended. Rac­ing is in the blood of Saudis like Faris Al-Thiyabe, 28, whose fond­ness for horses has trans­lated into a job at the track. 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 says, ex­plain­ing how he in­her­ited his pas­sion for horses.

Stand­ing in the con­course as mounted jock­eys pa­rade be­fore the next race, the lively Thiyabe boasts that he is “the youngest race caller in the world”. Later, on a high floor in­side the club­house, he holds a rac­ing guide in one hand and shouts into his head­set as the fourth race reaches a cli­max. “In­deli­ble Ink on the out­side. In­deli­ble Ink is try­ing to make it. And In­deli­ble Ink... wins it with a great per­for­mance. What a photo fin­ish on the last stages!” Be­tween races, as Thiyabe catches his breath, water tankers spray the track’s red-brown soil and trac­tors drag rakes to ready it for the next con­test.

“This is a first-class fa­cil­ity,” says Tur­man. “The track it­self is beau­ti­ful. The rac­ing sur­face is the best that I’ve ever worked with. It re­ally has the best sand in the world, as you can imag­ine.” Most of the horses are Saudi-bred. Their own­ers and train­ers “are from all walks of life, from princes to a nor­mal guy with a fam­ily that’s got a few horses,” Tur­man says. One owner, Mam­douh Alaraf­shah, has spent the af­ter­noon in the quiet club­house. His horse Alah­maaj was sup­posed to run in the day’s first race - a 1,200-me­tre event with a to­tal purse of 70,000 riyals put up by a lo­cal petro­chem­i­cals firm - but was scratched last minute.

Alaraf­shah says he hopes the horse will “be get­ting bet­ter” soon, with­out ad­ding why he was pulled from the race. Al­though there is no bet­ting, race fans can make on­line picks for win­ners prior to the open­ing bell each race day. Only a few stand a chance at prizes, which range be­tween 3,000 and 10,000 riyals. Riyadh’s race sea­son builds up to­wards the King Ab­du­laziz Cup, a Group One event over 1,600 m with a purse of 600,000 riyals in late Fe­bru­ary.

Some train­ers also come from France, the United States or Bri­tain, while jock­eys in­clude Saudis and for­eign­ers. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity for them to come and build up some wins and some ex­pe­ri­ence” in races with a large field of typ­i­cally 18 horses, Tur­man says. In the ab­sence of gam­bling, which boosts in­comes in Amer­i­can and Euro­pean rac­ing, Tur­man says the Saudi sport is fu­elled by some­thing more fun­da­men­tal. “That’s where the pas­sion for the horse rac­ing re­ally comes in,” he says, as jock­eys ride their mounts to­wards the start­ing gate for an­other race in a long Saudi tra­di­tion of horse­man­ship. — AFP

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