Much has been written and argued about concerning the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to shortcut its way into top-level international sport, writes Tony Stafford. First golf, where millions of dollars were paid several years ago to a few selected stars to entice them into a tournament where, if winning, they would only have added a minimal amount to their guaranteed pot. The only requirement for them was to turn up and smile – all the way to the bank.
That has continued with their own lavishly endowed tour which has caused such a personal rift between those like Phil Mickelson and Ian Poulter, who have broken away, and former friends Rory McIIroy and Tiger Woods, die-hard stalwarts of the existing PGA programme.
Then it was football – and, with the spotlight of the World Cup last autumn, their own footballers were on hand and even won a match – against champions Argentina no less! – to kick off their campaign before the competition eventually proved too hot. That their country’s football administrators could then manage to seduce Cristiano Ronaldo to abandon his lucrative Manchester United contract for one of infinitely greater instant wealth, even at the age of 38, to join their best domestic team, further emphasised their seriousness.
Horse racing has always been a focus for Saudi owners. Prince Khalid Abdullah, via his Juddmonte Farm breeding operation, had been a serious challenger in world racing both to the Maktoum family from Dubai and Coolmore for much of the past fifty years until his death in 2021.
Two decades earlier, two more Saudi Princes, the brothers Fahd and Ahmed Bin Salman, both had massive international strings. Fahd, the elder by a few years, won the Derby with Generous and, soon after, Ahmed, via the vehicle of his Thoroughbred Corporation, also won that Classic with Oath, as well as, in the US, four consecutive Triple Crown races, although bizarrely not managing to complete the Triple Crown itself.
I was fortunate to be involved with the TC throughout that entire period, and it was almost as much a shock to me as to the family and the country when both princes died in their 40’s, Ahmed a year after his brother. Their status in the country was immense, fittingly as sons of Prince Salman, now King Salman, who acceded to the country’s throne in 2015 and who remains its Head of State.
In those days, racing at their home track in Janadriya, and in the summer at Taif, where the temperature is much cooler than in the capital, was generally restricted to local owners. The horses raced around a very basic track, adjacent to which the smaller trainers and their owners would sit in the stables close to their horses for many hours and at leisure formulate their plans.
Then, as the decade of the 2010’s proceeded, news came of a big new racetrack, the King Abdulaziz Racecourse, in the same part of town. In 2020, the first running of the Saudi Cup was scheduled, a tactically astute four weeks before the Dubai World Cup at Meydan. Saudis regard the Maktoum-family emirate of Dubai, and the other Emirates for that matter, as Johnny Come Latelys and. while they are prosperous enough, the wealth in Saudi is, as was described to me when I first joined the TC, “a bottomless pit”. Funny how some phrases stay with you!
Consequently, the decision for Saudi Arabian horse racing massively to outbid and therefore upstage the Dubai World Cup and then get in ahead of it was probably only to be expected. Now on Saturday, the fourth running of the Saudi Cup, a 10-furlong race on the dirt, carried a total prize pool of £16 million and a first prize in excess of £8 million.
As with the golf and soccer, it was money no object and such distortion surely, one might think, must have the potential of causing a re-drawing of the world record for prizemoney for any horse in the history of the sport.
The leader up to Saturday morning was the wonderful Australian racemare Winx, on a final figure of £14,564,743 from 29 wins in 32 races for trainer Chris Waller until her retirement in 2019 for the breeding shed. She holds the record, from Bob Baffert’s Arrogate, winner of the Dubai World Cup for Prince Khalid. Japan’s Almond Eye, another great mare, is third, both horses having picked up more than £13 million.
Although the list I used does not include him, another of the world’s greatest money-accumulators was topically boosting his tally yesterday in Hong Kong. Preferred in the market on the Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup, the seven-year-old gelding Golden Sixty still recorded his 24th victory in 28 starts at Sha Tin, beating the 1-2 favourite, the two years younger Romantic Warrior, by a head. The 700-odd grand for this latest triumph actually puts him fourth on the overall list at £13,077,966.
It took Winx and Golden Sixty many years of endeavour to reach their massive cash accumulations. The Saudi riches will no doubt one day distort the record books, but despite Bob Baffert’s best efforts, it hasn’t happened yet.
On Saturday, Baffert brought a formidable double challenge to Riyadh. He supplied the Saudi Cup’s favourite in Taiba, a four-year-old with four wins back home in California, three at Grade 1 level. Despite having big-race specialist Mike Smith on board, Taiba could finish only ninth.
That was a long way behind the other Baffert runner, Country Grammer, now a six-year-old and runner-up in this race 12 months ago. It was a shock when he failed to beat locally trained Emblem Road last year but then, with Frankie Dettori drafted in, he collected the marginally (albeit almost £3 million) less Dubai World Cup a month later.
Dettori, as we know, is on his Let’s Get In As Much Cash As We Can In My Last Year’s Riding World TourTM and he stopped off for Christmas in California to win a Grade 2 on Country Grammer as the gelding’s prep for Saturday. Lo and behold though, the Frankie magic was in vain as the Japanese-trained Panthalassa, also a six-year-old, made every yard at 16/1 for trainer Yoshita Yahogi and rider Y Yoshida.
I spoke of distortion: If Country Grammer had picked up £8 million plus rather than a measly £2.91 million, he would have sailed a full £2 million past Winx. He can make up the deficit by winning the £5 million plus World Cup, so while it would be nice for Frankie to have another little payday to bolster his pension fund, let’s hope Winx can stay ahead of the pack for one more year at least.
There were several handsomely rewarded UK recipients of the Saudi largesse on the undercard. Unsurprisingly, they were headed by the Gosdens, winners of the second Saudi Cup with Mishriff, who as a result remains in the top ten money-earners narrowly ahead of Prince Khalid Abdullah’s great champion, Enable, whom John Gosden also trained. They picked up the £750k first prize in the Neon Turf Cup, Mostahdaf winning by seven lengths from Dubai Future, trained for Godolphin by Saeed bin Suroor.
While the Gosdens and Dettori are hardly unacquainted at picking up sackloads of lolly, one trainer more than happy to take just a small portion of the day’s rewards was Ian Williams.
He ran recent Dubai Carnival handicap scorer Enemy in the £1.25 million to the winner Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap over 1m7f. As his horse came to challenge under Richard Kingscote, for at least a furlong the trainer thought the unthinkable: “We’re going to win!”, but as in the big race later, the Japanese front-runner kept front running to the line and beyond.
Still, the consolation prize for second was a cool £440k for owners Tracey Bell and Caroline Lyons (from which Williams and Kingscote will both earn a nice percentage). Enemy has already been accepted for the Dubai Gold Cup on World Cup night and must be a prime contender, while the intended Melbourne Cup challenge, aborted when the horse lost his form last summer, may well be on. “We have to thank Ben Brain for that as he sorted out Enemy’s issues with his customary magic touch,” said Williams.
Waking up to reality yesterday, he was looking forward to watching his team Manchester United at the hotel in the Carabao Cup Final before going off to see that other spectacle, the big fight between Tommy Fury and Jake Paul, which is the preferred venue to end Saudi Cup weekend. Not much fun this racehorse training lark, is it Ian?
Less rewarding, sadly, was William Knight’s trip with his money-spinner Sir Busker, set up nicely with a run around Lingfield under big-race rider Ryan Moore, but after starting slowly in Mostahdaf’s race, never got in a blow. Most races on Saturday favoured horses away in the forefront and Sir Busker therefore had everything against him from the start. There will be other days for him, but few with the sort of money that might have been coming his way if things had gone to plan.