SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Saudi Arabia will host a $20 million race in February next year on the dirt course at King Abdul Aziz racetrack in Riyadh, the country’s racing authority and members of the ruling family announced on Wednesday, instantly making the country a player on the international racing scene with the promise of the richest purse in the world.
The race, called the Saudi Cup, is scheduled for Feb. 29 next year, four weeks after the Pegasus World Cup in Florida and four weeks prior to the $12 million Dubai World Cup in the nearby United Arab Emirates. The Saudi Cup will be run at about 1 1/8 miles, or 1,800 meters, and will be open to 4-year-olds and up (Southern Hemisphere 3-year-olds will also be eligible).
“This is an event that we plan on lasting for decades, beyond my lifetime, and what we hope is for this race to be on the international calendar, to be one of the main races sought after [in the world],” said Prince Bandar bin Khalid al Faisal, who was on hand at a media event at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion to announce the race.
The audacious plan to host the world’s richest race will vault Saudi Arabia from a minor player on the international Thoroughbred racing stage to a major attraction on the international racing circuit. None of the races currently held at the country’s two racetracks qualify for the international cataloging standards that determine the world’s best races, but the new race – and a soon to be announced undercard – will likely end that distinction.
“It is an opportunity for us to showcase horseracing in Saudi Arabia,” Prince Bandar said. “We are very keen to transform [our racing] into an industry, one that is sustainable, that can grow to a level that is on par with the best out there.”
The dirt course at King Abdul Aziz racetrack has a circumference of 2,400 meters, or about 1 1/2 miles, and the 1,800-meter Saudi Cup will be run out of a backstretch chute around one turn, the organizers said. At the media event, the organizers of the race broadcast a television clip of Lanfranco Dettori, the famous jockey, comparing the course’s circumference to Belmont Park and stating that “the kickback is not too harsh,” in answer to a question as to whether turf specialists would find the dirt surface welcoming.
The field will be capped at 14 horses, according to a fact sheet distributed by the organizers. The winner of the race will get $10 million, while second place will get $3.5 million, and third place will get $2 million. Fourth will receive $1.5 million and fifth receives $1 million. Horses finishing through 10th place will get a portion of the purse.
The organizers have not yet determined how the field will be set, but there will be no entry or starting fees, they said.
Representatives of the organizers said that they expected wagering to be offered on the Saudi Cup and its undercard in racing jurisdictions around the world, including the U.S. Betting is not allowed in Saudi Arabia.
The announcement of the $20 million purse escalates a recent arms race among Gulfstream Park and the racing authorities in Dubai to lay claim to the richest race in the world. In 2017 and 2018, the Pegasus World Cup advertised its purse as $12 million and $16 million, respectively (though the actual distributions were $9 million and $8.5 million, due to a unique structure that refunded entry money to runners), while the Dubai World Cup raised its purse to $12 million this year, up from $10 million.
The placement of the race between the Pegasus World Cup and the Dubai World Cup introduces the possibility that a horse could run and win all three races, clearly an aim of the Saudi authorities.
“We chose the timing very carefully,” said Prince Bandar. “We think it fits in nicely between those two races. It’s close enough to the Dubai Cub that those people who do come to that part of the world [Saudi Arabia] can stay, since it’s a wonderful area to train. I think it’s very lucky we had that opening between the two races, and we’re going to own it.”
“This is a new Triple Crown that is starting right now,” said Gary Stevens, the retired Hall of Fame jockey, who was on hand for the event.
Harry Herbert, who is the Saudi Cup Global Ambassador, said that the race will showcase both horseracing and Saudi Arabian culture.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to show off your country, your culture, your racing heritage, your heritage in general, and I think that is just everything about our sport,” Herbert said. “From a competition perspective, it’s flying your flag, it’s representing your country.”
This story was originally published on DRF.com.