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1972Sports in the Arab World

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They're Off! In Riyadh

Saudi Arabia’s King’s Cup is on the inside and coming up fast.

Written by Brainerd S. Bates
Photographed by S. M. Amin

America has its Kentucky Derby, England its Royal Ascot and France, every June, the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamps. Now, though its tradition is at least 160 years younger, Saudi Arabia's King's Cup, run each spring in Riyadh, is not only off and running, but coming up fast.

As well it might. The Arabs of Arabia have long taken pride in the special breed of horse which bears their name and racing is one of their oldest sports. But instead of a few nomads gathering on a stretch of sand, now there is a formal, regulated race presided over by His Majesty King Faisal and offering a schedule of races like these: 1. the 1,500 Saudi-riyal ($333) Riyadh prize, 1,200 meters (0.744 of a mile), six entries; 2. 2,000 riyals ($444), 1,500 meters (0.930 of a mile) 12 entries. 3. SR 2,500 ($555), 2,400 meters, close to miles, seven entries; 4. the King's Cup: 11 horses, 2,600 meters, a $4,500 purse, and a goldplated cup presented personally to the winner by H.M. King Faisal.

Offering of prizes is part of a government program to encourage the breeding of good Arabian horses and boost horsemanship. Altogether the government provides an annual subsidy of $110,000, but some of it goes toward the maintenance and professional management of Riyadh's Jockey Club. And since western-style racetrack betting is prohibited and "purses" extremely modest (compared to those at, say, Santa Anita and Hialeah) what most jockeys were after as they gathered the Riyadh Jockey Club last April, was glory.

The Jockey Club, where cup races are run, is on the outskirts of Riyadh and on the afternoon of the big day, race-goers had started to gather outside the club buildings about 2:30. Soon afterward special guests holding their printed invitations in front of them began to enter too. Among them was former film star Shirley Temple, now Mrs. Black, who was then accompanying her husband through the kingdom.

As time for the race neared, an honor guard of soldiers lined the track in front of the grandstand and an army bagpipe band, dressed in smart khaki uniforms and military versions of the Arab ghutra, paraded past the spectators. Soon the committee of judges, consisting of His Royal Highness Amir Khalid Al Faysal, His Excellency 'Abd Allah Aba al-Khayal and Suliman al-Hassan and headed by His Highness Amir Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, was taking its place on a special stand under the tall television camera tower at the finish line. They would have a busy afternoon; photo-finish equipment has yet to be installed at the Jockey Club track.

Meanwhile, on a bathroom scale behind the judges' stand, the jockeys, their tack slung over their shoulders, were being weighed, most of them wearing new racing silks that must have inspired considerable wonder in old-time local racing fans. Participating jockeys who really look like jockeys are a relatively recent innovation in Riyadh. Only four years ago jockeys appeared in the long white thobes customarily worn by all Saudi men, and they invariably rode bareback and barefooted. Nowadays saddles and some kind of foot covering are mandatory. At the April races, tennis shoes and Japanese rubber sandals were highly favored by jockeys in the lesser races, socks by the older riders. They say they cannot feel secure without holding on with their toes.

These developments, along with the introduction of such sophisticated equipment as a portable starting gate towed onto the track by a tractor, are sources of satisfaction to experts like Vicke Timmons, who grew up with horses in her native Texas and is an enthusiastic promoter of racing in Saudi Arabia. But according to Vicke, who runs a horse club in Riyadh and whose greatest ambition is to ride in the King's Cup race herself, there are even more subtle refinements developing which are not generally appreciated by the average ticket holder in the stands. As one example, Saudis are becoming increasingly sophisticated about such matters as diet, and are beginning to supplement the standard fare of alfalfa and barley with special vitamins. Then too, take the elemental matter of horseshoes. The Arabs are said to have invented them an age ago—crude, solid affairs which covered the whole hoof. These days the manner of shoeing a horse for competition is coming full circle, as the Arabs increasingly take up western-style aluminum racing plates for their horses to run on.

Another innovation which has crept into horse racing in Riyadh is the application of strategy. In the past competing horses were maneuvered up to the starting line, someone gave a signal, and off they would go. The Saudi jockey of today has begun to learn how to pace his horse, when to rein him in and at what point to spur him down the home stretch.

The King's Cup is by all odds the biggest racing event on the Jockey Club calendar, but it is not the only attraction. During much of the year, weekly races were so successful that the racing schedule was doubled. The club also holds a $2,250, 2,400-meter event for the Crown Prince's Cup. Another race awards a large American automobile to the winner and Saudi Arabian Airlines sponsors a third with a round-trip ticket to London as the lure. This particular prize goes to the winning jockey himself, and for this reason is especially coveted among the riders. They all want a chance to go to England, where thoroughbred racing got its start, to see for themselves how it is done.

The more important races in Riyadh have openings for beginner, intermediate and advanced classes, and no horses under three years old are allowed to compete. According to Abdullah al-Bassam, manager of the Jockey Club, each entry must be accompanied by a kind of certificate of origin which attests that the horse is a pure Arabian. The nearest equivalent to a stud book in the kingdom are the records kept at the Jockey Club in the custody of al-Bassam. All the best horses competing on the club track have a file which traces their lineage. A new awareness of recorded genealogy in horse breeding is one other sign that horse racing in Saudi Arabia is coming of age.

Not that racing is new in Saudi Arabja. For the Najdis, inhabitants of north-central Saudi Arabia, racing has had an unusually strong tradition for years. And during the early days of his reign, the late, illustrious King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Faysal Al Sa'ud, in connection with the Muslim 'Id al-Fitr holidays which mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, led his followers in equestrian gymkhanas. These games on mounts gave Arab horsemen opportunities to demonstrate their skill at such feats as jousting, and ended with a crosscountry race through old Riyadh over a course from nine to 12 miles in length, a distance calculated to test the famed endurance of the Arabians. But it was not until just before the death of King 'Abd al-'Aziz in 1953 that long-distance overland races began to give way to track contests, and it was the present ruler who proclaimed his intention of reestablishing Saudi Arabia as the homeland of the Arabian horse, and backed it up with government funds.

It is inevitable that as the King's Cup and other races are run over the coming years they will be further refined and regulated. As this happens the color and spontaneity of the old days is sure to fade. But one characteristic that is unlikely to change is the belief that jockey and trainer should be the same man. After all, the owners still reason, who knows my horse better than the one who has trained him? Generally, too, the jockey/trainers are all Saudis. A conspicuous exception on April 19 was the case of al-Munqith, ridden that day by a French jockey listed on the card simply and phonetically as "Robair," whom the owner had brought in from Lebanon. The effort, it turned out, was for naught. The King's Cup was brought home that day by Rabiha, with jockey Mushrif ibn Mutlaq up.

Brainerd S. Bates , whose mother came from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, learned his horse racing by watching Fox Movietone newsreels in the '30's. Although he once won a Junior Varsity football letter from Phillips Academy, and enjoys sailing, he considers a weekly perusal of Time's sports section sufficient exercise for any man.

This article appeared on pages 26-27 of the Sports in the Arab World print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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