Saudi Cup a worthy celebration of equestrian traditions in Arab culture

Emblem Road with jockey Wigberto Ramos wins the $20 million Group 1 Saudi Cup over 1800m in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. (AP)

Saudi-owned Emblem Road won the world’s most valuable race as event once again showcased what the sport of horse racing means to the region

RIYADH: The Saudi Cup has been remarkably resilient, despite it having been inaugurated at the outset of the pandemic. Far from having been diminished by the challenges faced by the Kingdom, the horse racing industry, and international travel, the event has actually grown remarkably.  

This year’s $31.5 million in prize money, specifically featuring the world's richest race, has led to many referring to the meeting as the “most valuable race in history.” 

Attracting considerable international participation, the race was most notable for its huge number of Saudi attendees.

“Banat Al-Reeh” (daughters of the wind) is what the peninsula Arabs have traditionally referred to their horses as. Introduced to the region at least 6,000 years ago, they have existed in parallel to the history of the Arab people. 

Cave paintings at Shuwaymis in Hail show their existence to have been likely from as far back as 9,000 years ago. 

Differences of opinion have led to a zoological mystery regarding their origins. However, this has only added to the mystique of this original breed which remains to this very day.

Prized for their beauty, hardiness and speed, horses have played a central role in Arab culture and civilization. 

To the peninsula Bedouin they were a much-needed source of transport and respite from trekking the inhospitable sands and mountains. For early Muslims they were an important military and logistical vehicle, for it was on their backs that the fastest linguistic and religious conquest and conversion was made possible.

Today, much as throughout their history, they remain an important source of pride, symbolic of an association between man and beast for which has become almost synonymous with Arab identity.

To many in attendance, the Saudi Cup was very much a homecoming for the horses as, although they are thoroughbreds, they all have an Arab ancestor. 

It was not lost upon those present that the thoroughbred was developed in 17th- and 18th-century England, when native mares were crossbred with imported Oriental stallions of Arabian and Barb breeds. The tall and slim athletic horses, though transformed, retain some of the beauty and agility for which their Arabian forebears were renowned. 

It is this association, coupled with an effort to increase Saudi involvement and participation in the sport, which has inspired the Saudi Equestrian Federation’s efforts to grow the event’s footprint.

This emphasis on cultural heritage made this year’s races so distinct. While other equestrian meets around the world are, though glamorous, impersonal and culturally bland affairs, this year’s Saudi Cup, directly after the country’s Founding Day, was a spectacle of color. 

Attendees embraced the fashions of their ancestors, sporting rich silks, traditional embroidered patterns, and unmistakable heavy yellow gold jewelry pieces associated with celebrations of the peninsula.

Given the great emphasis being put on hosting events and building cultural life in the Kingdom, the Saudi Cup has grown to encompass both plans while retaining a very authentic local feel and identity.

Given the centrality of horses to the history of the tribes of the peninsula, it is only fitting that this legacy be honored with such a prestigious event. 

Though only at 60 percent capacity, tens of thousands of attendees swarmed the King Abdulaziz Horse Center enjoying not only the main spectacle but enthusiastically queuing up to enjoy coffee from five regions of the Kingdom and making the most of the tribal dancing that was on show. 

This was not only an international horse race, but a celebration of the horse.

Saudi-owned Mishriff, the star of last year’s cup, was a favorite to win, challenged by another locally owned horse, Mandaloun of Juddmonte. This greatly excited attendees. 

However, the surprise win of Emblem Road - a locally trained and owned 66-1 outsider - was a great finale for the event. 

In a photo-finish, it won by half a length, giving the sport a much-needed local win that was a fitting recognition of the efforts to develop it locally. 

Prince Bandar Bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, summed up the occasion.

“To have a locally trained horse perform that way is very emotional,” he said. “I'm very happy for the connections, and I'm happy for Saudi Arabia. I think Mishriff, a Saudi-owned horse (the 2021 Saudi Cup winner), did amazing things to spread the love of horses. And now to have a locally trained horse win it (the Saudi Cup) is extremely special, and I'm really excited about what this means for the future of horse racing in Saudi Arabia.”

Amid the plethora of events that have been brought to the Kingdom in recent years, the Saudi Cup has been one of the more successful, in large part due to its authenticity and association with the region’s history. 

A fact which may question the utility of importing events going forward, when those with a local touch resonate so strongly with the public.
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