RIYADH: One of international horse riding’s top officials has described as “breathtaking” the Saudi venue for this weekend’s historic Diriyah Equestrian Festival.
International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) judge Valeria Nicoli said she was left “speechless” on seeing Al-Duhami Farm – the world-class equestrian arena built into the side of a mountain by Saudi Olympic legend Ramzy Al-Duhami and his wife Sara Baban.
Nicoli has been on site since last week, helping the facility ready itself for the opening weekend of the competition, which runs this weekend and next, starting Thursday.
It is the Italian’s first visit to the country, ahead of what is the Kingdom’s first-ever hosting of an international, FEI-sanctioned event, meaning riders taking part in the Diriyah Equestrian Festival will be competing for qualifying points for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
In line with that, the event has attracted champions from around the world to compete across the six days of competition.
Big names representing Saudi Arabia include Abdullah Al-Sharbatly, who won a gold medal at the Asian Games in both 2006 and 2010, Abdel Rahman Al-Rajhi, who competed in the World Cup finals last year and won a silver medal during the 2014 Asian Games, 2018 winner Khaled Al-Mobty, and bronze Olympic medalist and festival host Al-Duhami.
Nicoli said the athletes could not be coming together to compete in a finer arena. “First arriving at Al-Duhami Farm I was left speechless! It is one of the most breathtaking locations I’ve ever attended for a competition, with the facilities all genuinely world class. It will be an incredible place to ride and all the competitors will love it.
“As a FEI official I travel the world watching elite athletes compete in every corner of the globe, and in many of its most famous cities. This unbelievable architectural achievement that Ramzy and Sara have carved quite literally into the side of a rock mountain here at Al-Duhami Farm, will most definitely be remembered by the hundreds of riders and fans coming to enjoy the next two weekends of the Diriyah Equestrian Festival,” she added.
“For the riders, they will love the stable set-up, all-round accommodation and Al-Duhami’s two wonderful arenas.
“This place was a long-term dream for Ramzy and Sara and being here you really discover how much of a labor of love it was. You can feel that throughout, and really appreciate it in the quality of its facilities.
“Spectators will love the atmosphere created by the arena’s backing wall, which allows it to feel both incredibly grand yet intimate at the same time. It’s the perfect venue for world-class equestrian.”
Asked what made an equestrian arena feel special, the sport’s governing-body official said: “From a riding point of view the arena needs to have a quality sand base to allow for the best possible footing conditions. Without that it can be hard for the horses to establish true confidence in the ground and perform at their peak.
“With the right surface – which Al-Duhami Farm prides itself on – the level of riding will be elevated, and in turn the performance as great as can be, which the crowd will feed off.”
With Olympic and World Cup qualification points up for grabs, the Diriyah Equestrian Festival will make history for both the sport and the Kingdom.
It will, however, break even more ground and continue to pave the way for future Saudi athletes in other ways, as the festival will welcome women to compete alongside their male counterparts, both inside and outside of the arena, for the first time.
“To be playing a part in such an occasion is a really proud moment for me, both from a sporting and non-sporting point of view,” added Nicoli. “The passion for equestrian here is so strong, so for men and women to be able to compete and push the standards of horse-riding in the Kingdom higher than ever together is something to get excited about.
“Equestrian, being a sport of great tradition, is a great way of illustrating Saudi Arabia’s commitment to modernity, while keeping its proud heritage.”
The Diriyah Equestrian Festival will welcome an estimated 120 riders, 150 grooms, 50 officials, 300 companions and trainers and 150 crew members.
An estimated 1,500 visitors are expected to attend and enjoy Saudi Arabia’s famous hospitality with the offering of 15 food trucks catering to international cuisines, 10 shops and game and federation exhibitors.