RIYADH: History was made twice at the King Abdul Aziz Racetrack in Riyadh last weekend. A $20 million total prize purse meant it took the crown as the sport’s richest event. It was also the first time that female jockeys publicly competed against men in Saudi Arabia.
New Zealand’s Lisa Allpress, who took part in Friday’s International Jockeys Challenge, became the first female jockey to win a race in the Kingdom. That same day Switzerland’s Sibylle Vogt came second behind Mike Smith in the challenge, another milestone for first-time female participation.
“Where I come from it’s not a crazy thing for a woman to be riding in big races but this means a lot,” Allpress told Arab News. “I’m just happy to be here and doing my thing. I came here with an open mind and I’m extremely thankful to be asked.”
Nora Al-Yusuf is chief strategy officer at Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women and used to race on the Saudi Endurance team. She described the weekend meeting as an emotional moment because of female participation. “The irony was that I represented my country but could not race in my country because at the time women were not allowed to be in mixed public races,” she told Arab News.
“To see this now penetrating the sports industry and the equality between men and women being implemented in sports in general is incredible. Equestrian sports is one of the few where you can compete against men.”
The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia opened more than five decades ago, in 1965, and there was an annual event for local families who had racing investments and interests.
“I grew up in Riyadh and I didn’t know that there were races each weekend,” communications specialist Salwa Abuljadayel told Arab News. “It was a family affair. There’s a big difference between those races and this first Saudi Cup. It’s quite extraordinary. This area of Riyadh was largely undiscovered. What is beautiful about the Saudi Cup is that it revealed this beautiful racetrack to the rest of the world. When I started working for the Saudi Cup on Instagram the track had less than 10 posts and now it has thousands. It’s nice to find Saudis finally competing with international jockeys on home turf.”
Dalma Malhas is Saudi Arabia’s leading female equestrian and there was much talk over the weekend about the possibility of her competing in a future race.
“I think these mixed races have given Saudi women the possibility now of owning and competing with their horses,” Abuljadayel added.
Away from the racetrack there were exhibitions and entertainment to engage visitors. There was artwork from Nabila Abuljadayel and Roksanda Ciurysek-Gedir, as well as a fashion show staged by Princess Nourah University featuring local designers that was judged by Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al-Faisal, who is chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia.
I think these mixed races have given Saudi women the possibility now of owning and competing with their horses.
“Many prominent women attended this year and that is new,” said Abuljadayel. “The event is used to having just males attend the race and so facilities for women weren’t really something that was highlighted until this year.”
Maximum Security was the winner of the inaugural Saudi Cup, claiming the prize of $10 million. Luis Saez rode the Jason Servis-trained four-year-old to a victory many had predicted, leaving Midnight Bisou in second to collect $3.5 million, while Godolphin’s Benbatl walked away with $2 million in third.
While the event represented history being made in the Kingdom, it also represented a dream come true.
“I raced here at the club around 18 years ago and I have always considered this to be the best track I’ve ever ridden on,” said former Irish racing jockey Michael Kinane who was at the Saudi Cup. “If you had asked me more than 18 years ago if we would have been here at a $20m international race 20 years later I would have said: ‘Not in your wildest dreams.’ So to see this actually happen and to be put together in six to eight months is fantastic as well as to see the support it got from the regional and international community. You put the prize money there and the horses will come.”