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Shane Foley takes top spot in international challenge

Leading Irish jockey Shane Foley claimed top honours in the stc International Jockeys Challenge in Riyadh on Friday.

Riders from all over the world jetted in to Saudi Arabia for the second running of the competition, which acts as the perfect appetiser to Saturday’s high-profile card at the King Adbulaziz Racetrack, which features the $20million Saudi Cup.

Foley, who as stable jockey Jessica Harrington has enjoyed big-race success aboard the likes of Albigna, Cadillac and Lucky Vega in the last couple of years, landed two of the four races that form the challenge, first striking gold on Emblem Star.

The 3-1 favourite was drawn widest of all in the second leg of the event, but a smart start allowed Foley to navigate his mount across the track and take up a handy position before kicking clear from the home turn for a decisive victory.

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Foley was soon on the mark again, with Motawariyah (9-2) similarly impressive in the following race – and after being confirmed as the winner of the competition, the Kilkenny native was keen to dedicate his success to nine-times champion jockey Pat Smullen, who died last year following a long battle with cancer.

Foley said: “It’s fantastic to be involved, and maybe I wouldn’t be here if Pat Smullen was here. He’d have probably got the invite as he was the go-to man and it’s days like today that make you think of Pat, but he’d be proud of me I think.

“When you’re competing in these races it’s a random draw, so you’ve a chance of getting on a fancied horse and I was lucky enough to draw two that had chances. I had a nice run around on both of them and they both won.

“I know they’re not Group races, but it’s on the big stage with a lot of people watching and obviously good for your career.

“It’s up there was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had for a while – it beats Dundalk, anyway!”

American great Mike Smith enjoyed a winner at the international jockeys challenge
American great Mike Smith enjoyed a winner at the international jockeys challenge (Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Douglas DeFelice)

The first leg went to 7-2 favourite Mortajeh, with American legend Mike Smith taking over in the saddle from John Velazquez, who was unable to travel to Saudi Arabia due to travel complications.

Hall of Fame rider Smith was crowned champion in the inaugural contest last year after landing two of the four races, but was later demoted to third after one of of his winners, Sun Hat, was disqualified due to a positive test for cobalt.

“I wasn’t even meant to be riding in the jockeys’ challenge – Johnny Velazquez couldn’t make it, so I filled in for him. I only heard about two hours beforehand,” said Smith, who this year finished third in the overall competition.

“It was great to start out with a winner and I’m happy with the result. This is a great event and the prize-money is amazing.”

Charlatan is favourite for the $20million Saudi Cup
Charlatan is favourite for the $20million Saudi Cup (Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Mathea Kelley)

Smith will ride favourite Charlatan in the Saudi Cup, and said of the Bob Baffert-trained colt: “Charlatan is an extremely talented horse and I’m really excited about him running. I think he’s going to really like this surface and hopefully he runs as well as I expect him to.”

Saudi Arabian rider Adel Alfouradi landed the fourth and final leg on 14-1 shot Zhabi Alhammad, which was enough to give him the runner-up spot.

William Buick and Hollie Doyle finished out of the places in each of the races.

Buick and Foley join stellar Riyadh cast list

William Buick and Shane Foley have joined the list of world-renowned riders poised for action in the STC International Jockeys’ Challenge, which takes place in Riyadh on February 19, the eve of the $20million Saudi Cup.

Buick, who took part in the original turf trials at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in January last year, has a number of big rides on Saudi Cup day itself and is looking forward to the challenge against the world’s best 24 hours earlier.

He said: “My first time riding in Saudi was around 12 years ago, I’ve been in and out since then. Last year I came over for the turf trials, which went very well indeed.

William Buick took part in trials of the turf course in Saudi Arabia last year
William Buick took part in trials of the turf course in Saudi Arabia last year (Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Martin Dokoupil)

“The Saudi Cup raceday itself was a massive success. There were winners from all over the world, and the races were really competitive. For the organisers of a big meeting, that’s your dream – competitive racing and a level playing field.

“I’m really looking forward to the international jockeys’ challenge. I love these competitions. I think I’ve won the Mauritius one once – I’ve taken part in Hong Kong a few times, and there was also one the JRA used to do on Japan Cup weekend.

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“This will be my first time riding in the Saudi challenge, and I really like the look of the format – four races, everyone riding in each race and the points system. It’s simple but it works.”

Space Blues is set to be a key mount for Buick on the $30.5million Saudi Cup card, where he is pencilled in for the Turf Sprint.

The Charlie Appleby-trained five-year-old enjoyed a tremendous time of things last year, culminating with his first Group One victory in the Prix Maurice de Gheest.

Buick said: “I should have a couple of nice rides at the meeting. Space Blues will be heading out there for the Turf Sprint, all being well. He’s on the right track at the moment and is a Group One winner, so we’re excited about him.

“Secret Advisor is entered in the Long Distance Turf Handicap and he had some nice form in Dubai last winter. He backed that up with a solid campaign in Europe. The track, trip and ground should be perfect for him – so we’re looking forward to it.”

Foley finished runner-up to Colin Keane in the Irish jockeys’ championship last year – and like Buick, he is relishing the Saudi challenge.

He said: “I really enjoy riding abroad and think it’s massively important. The racing in Saudi Arabia is a big and growing operation as far as owners are concerned, and all it takes is to kick on with one there and you could bring an owner back to Ireland for your stable.

Shane Foley with the Group One-winning Lucky Vega
Shane Foley with the Group One-winning Lucky Vega (PA)

“I rode in the Japanese jockeys’ challenge in 2018 – which was a good experience – and I’ve ridden against some of these jockeys, like Pierre-Charles Boudot and Jessica Marcialis in the Arc and Breeders’ Cup weekends. It’s nice to be associated with these high-quality names and events, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Also like Buick, Foley will be in action the day after the challenge.

He added: “We have Barbados going for owner Mr Zhang in the Long Distance Turf Handicap on Saturday, and if he can reproduce his (Irish) St Leger run then he will be bang there. I’m just hoping the ground is not really firm. He’ll handle nice quick ground – if it gets too firm that will be the only negative, but I’ve heard the ground last year was beautiful.

“It would be massive, and for the owner as well. He’s a big supporter of mine, and I’ve been retained by him for the last couple of years. He’s always stood by me and he has invested quite heavily in the game.

“Last year he had his first Group One winner with Lucky Vega, and it would be great to have a winner out on Saudi Cup day for him because he’s a proud and competitive man.”