We hear so often in the Thoroughbred business about what a global industry it is and, with such foreign-owned empires as Coolmore Stud, Darley, and Juddmonte decorating our Bluegrass landscape, logically we know this to be true.
Still, nothing quite drives home the reality of a situation like watching it unfold in front of your eyes. Thanks to a recent trip, I got to witness up close how widespread the sport truly is while getting a glimpse at a country that could become a more significant player in our signature industry.
On February 22, a colleague of mine and I departed for Doha to take part in the Qatar International Equestrian Festival – a fascinating four-day event which featured, among other highlights, two nights of Arabian and Thoroughbred racing.
One Cool Mission, a son of One Cool Cat, winning the first race on Thursday (Amanda Duckworth photo)
Seeing offspring of Storm Cat, Kingmambo, and Elusive Quality race may be a normal part of my work week here but, when one is watching said horses against the backdrop of the ever-expanding Doha skyline, the scene takes on different meaning entirely.
The Thoroughbred may be the king of our racing world but in Qatar, the Arabian is the dominant breed both on the track and in the show ring (although, as we discovered, the Arabians used for racing and ones bred for show are almost two different breeds in themselves – but that’s a whole other story). That being said, Thoroughbred racing is steadily becoming more popular in the Gulf countries making up about 35 percent of the race cards we witnessed at the smallish, but elegant, Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club.
While glancing through the program during the first night of racing, we were intrigued to see progeny of Smart Strike, Tale of the Cat, Distant View, Giant’s Causeway, Kingmambo, Distorted Humor, Stormin Fever, Lemon Drop Kid, Perfect Soul and El Corredor all present in the two Thoroughbred races on the card. After years of covering the sales, I had always wondered where some of those international purchases ended up. Now, I wondered no more.
The track itself is very European in its set up with its all-turf cards, clockwise style of running, and routine of parading the top finishers in the paddock immediately after each contest. Like Dubai, there is no betting – a likely contributor to the small crowds we were told are the norm – but there was quite an ample turnout for the meeting’s highlight race on Thursday, the Qatar International Trophy for Purebred Arabians worth $1 million Rial (about $275,000) won by the grand 8-year-old mare Al Dahma who captured the race for a record fourth time.
Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club (Amanda Duckworth photo)
Among the horses she bested were – get this – her full brother, a 5-year-old horse named General, who ran second. Obviously, the trend of female runners defeating males knows no boundaries, familial or otherwise.
Though the Arabians were the centerpiece, there was also a Qatar International Trophy contest for Thoroughbreds the race prior which featured an identical hefty purse as well as, among others, Storm Sir, a son of Johannesburg, and Ticoz, a son of Cozzene, both of whom were sold at the 2006 Keeneland September yearling sale for $270,000 and $75,000, respectively.
Fittingly enough, the race was won in 2009 by an entry from Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing stable – proof in itself Qatar is becoming a more serious player on the Thoroughbred scene. While Godolphin was back again this year with the Singspiel colt Sopranist, he could do no better than second as race winner Puchet, an Argentine bred, captured the 2,400 meter test in a record time of 2:26.49 seconds.
Amanda Duckworth photo
For those wondering, there is not a huge difference style wise between watching Arabian racing and watching the Thoroughbreds as they produce similar competitive finishes. What was interesting to learn later on though was how much the Arabian has evolved compared to its Thoroughbred brethren.
Where our speed records often last for decades (i.e. Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont), it is not unusual in Arabian racing to see a record taken down by as much as 10 seconds in the matter of a few years. Also, since Arabian breeding does permit the use of Artificial Insemination, many of the races are dominated by the progeny of one particular sire, Amer, who apparently is the Storm Cat of Arabian studs. In the Qatar International Trophy, all five of the race’s entries were by Amer, which kind of put the kibosh on our faux hunch bets.
The field for the Qatar International Trophy, all by Amer (Amanda Duckworth photo)
If I were to rattle off all the things that stood out to us during our time at the track, this blog post would go on longer than D. Wayne Lukas’s list of career starters. For the sake of wrapping this up sooner rather than later, I will say that in addition to the wonderfully enthusiastic track announcer and the seeming accessible horsemen (one jockey on his way into the paddock stopped to warmly introduce himself to myself and my colleague when he spotted us lingering along the rail), one of the most interesting things was the unusual path used to lead the horses to and from their barns.
The stable area was literally across the street from the track facility and, as we were leaving each evening, we witnessed the participants from the final race being led across the road and down a path situated alongside the traffic in order to reach the comforts of their barn (could you imagine having the Kentucky Derby horses trekking down the side of Central Ave as everyone was heading out? Exactly.) Remarkably enough, all of the horses we saw handled the situation without turning a hair – proof yet again we weren’t in Kansas any more.
The path back to the stables (Amanda Duckworth photo)
In addition to scoping out the racing scene, we were also fortunate enough to visit with a few Arabian Stud farms in the area, most notably Al Shahania Stud which has seen its horses win 16 editions of the Emir’s Sword – the richest Pure Arabian race in the world. The aesthetic beauty of the horseshoe-shaped barn area was notable in its own right but what was most impressive was how all encompassing the facility is. With clinics being few and far between, all of the veterinary labs were right there on sight making it literally a one-stop shop for all the farm’s needs.
Stallion barn at Al Shahania Stud (Amanda Duckworth photo)
Within minutes of arriving in Qatar, it became clear the country is synonymous with growth as the plethora of cranes peppering the skyline literally make it look like one giant construction site. As we learned over the course of our visit, however, grandiose buildings are not the only thing on the expansion plan. The popularity of Thoroughbred racing appears to be on the upswing within the Gulf and, with the current market corrections still favoring international buyers, the global tag the sport boasts of has never been more true.