Saudi Cup: All eyes on Riyadh as the world’s most valuable horse race debuts

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Updated 29 February 2020

Saudi Cup: All eyes on Riyadh as the world’s most valuable horse race debuts

  • As Saudi Arabia embarks on a new sporting era, a stellar line-up chases a record $29.2 million in prize money — and a place in history

RIYADH: When the gates of King Abdul Aziz Racetrack open at noon on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, it will usher in a new era for sports and entertainment in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Cup, the world’s most valuable horse race is finally here — and not for the first time in recent years the eyes of the sporting world will turn to the Kingdom.

The numbers tell their own story: Eight races, a total purse of $29.2 million.

Prize money for the main event and final race of the day, the Saudi Cup, will be a record-breaking $20 million, with the winner taking home $10 million and the rest of the field sharing $6.5 million.

The line-up features a formidable American presence, including the highly rated Maximum Security and the Bob Baffert-trained duo of McKinzie and Mucho Gusto, but there will be significant regional interest as well.

Prince Khalid bin Abdullah, owner of the Juddmonte Farms breeding operation, will watch his own horse, Tacitus, take on the strong field in the Saudi Cup. “This is like the icing on the cake to be able to be here and participate in this race,” said trainer Bill Mott of Tacitus.

“It’s exciting. The great connections I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to be involved with at Juddmonte wanted to participate in (the Saudi Cup) and they’re excited as well.”

The Saudi Cup will also feature Godolphin’s six-year-old Benbatl, trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who will also have pupil Final Song running earlier in the Samba Saudi Derby. A win for Benbatl, son of the famous Dubawi, will raise his career earnings to more than $15.7 million.

“It would mean a lot for us to win,” bin Suroor said. “It is the first-ever Saudi Cup and the first big international race in Saudi Arabia. It is a very important race and it will be important for us to see him run well and win. He has been a very good Group 1 horse for us and very versatile. I’m very happy with him and I think he will have a good run.”

In the run-up to the headline event, seven other races, with combined prize money of $9.2 million, will take place in front of the magnificent 5,000- seat main grandstand. VIPs and members of the public arriving at the Golden Entrance will have plenty of time to acquaint themselves with the different facilities and services of the track, which include the Saudi Cup Pavilion, the Red Sea Pavilion, the Main and Saudi Cup Grandstands, the food court and picnic area, a tech zone and a children’s play area.

The first race of the day, the 2,100-meter Mohamed Yousuf Naghi Motors Cup, will be run on turf at 4 p.m. local time. It will be followed by the stc 1351 Cup (1,351 meters), also on turf, at 4:35 p.m.

Meanwhile, Freddy Head, who has ridden and trained major winners all over the world, is hoping to add the inaugural running of the $2.5 million Longines Turf Handicap (5:10 p.m.) to his list of triumphs when he rides six-year-old Call The Wind.

“He is a very consistent horse,” said the trainer. “Last year was a bit frustrating, though. He was unlucky a couple of times and had to carry a lot of weight.

In France, when you win a Group 1 race, you have to carry a lot of weight.”

Head said:“I think it is a worldwide thing to have these big races. It changes the way we train and plan the racing career of a horse. I remember coming here many years ago to ride. It’s nice to come back with a horse and run in a big race. Hopefully, he runs well here and then he will go back to Dubai.”

At 5:45 p.m. the Obaiya Arabian Classic, for purebred Arabian horses, will run over 2,000 meters on the dirt track before a 45-minute break.

Visitors will have the chance to observe the Maghreb prayers at 5:56 p.m. before returning in time for the fifth race of the day, the Jockey Club Local Handicap at 6:30 p.m.

This will be followed at 7:10 p.m. by the 1,600-meter Samba Saudi Derby, before the Isha prayer at 7:26 p.m.

No doubt the excitement will have built to fever pitch by the time of the penultimate race, the Saudia Sprint.

Gladiator King, Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid Al-Nuaimi’s Dubai-based runner, will put his unbeaten 2020 record on the line in the 1,200-meter event — the same distance at which he won both his starts this year in Meydan’s Dubawi and Al-Shindagha Sprint.

The showpiece event of the day, the Saudi Cup, will be run on dirt over one lap of the 1,800-meter King Abdul Aziz Racetrack.

The one-meter-high Saudi Cup trophy and a cheque for $10 million awaits the winner. Along with a place in history.

Decoder

Saudi Cup

Billed as the richest on the planet with a prize fund of $20 million, its inaugural run is on Feb. 29 at the King Abdul Aziz Racetrack in Riyadh. The race, over a distance of nine furlongs (1,800 meters) on the dirt track, will have a maximum field of 14 starters.


The 10 best Arab footballers to play in Europe

Updated 01 June 2020

The 10 best Arab footballers to play in Europe

  • As football takes tentative steps back toward normality, we take a look at some of the best Arab talent to make their mark in Europe’s top leagues

DUBAI: Germany’s Bundesliga is back. Spain’s La Liga, Serie A in Italy and the English Premier League, and maybe even the Champions League, are set to follow soon.

This means the likes of Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez and others will once again be on our screens chasing some of the game’s top prizes.

As football takes tentative steps back toward normality, we take a look at some of the best Arab talent to make their mark in Europe’s top leagues.

10. Ali Al-Habsi

The only player from the Gulf to make the list, and one of a handful to try his luck abroad, Ali Al-Habsi is nothing short of an icon in his native Oman. 

Having started at local club Al-Mudhaiba, his career has seen him play for Norway’s Lyn Oslo before a move to England and stints at Bolton, Wigan (where he won an FA Cup medal despite not playing in the 2013 final against Manchester City), Brighton and Reading. A two-year spell in the Saudi Professional League with Al-Hilal was followed by a return to England and West Brom, where he currently remains at the age of 38.

Admired and loved everywhere he has gone, and a role model and hero in his country and across the Gulf.

9. Mido

Many see this as a career that promised more than it delivered with the much-traveled Egypt international perceived not to have made the most of his undoubted talent during his European journey. Still, he has a track record that few Arab footballers can match, with spells of varying success at Ajax, Marseille, Roma, Tottenham, Middlesbrough and West Ham, among others.

After starting his career in Cairo with Zamalek, Mido made his big move to Europe by joining Genk in Belgium, but really caught the eye at Ajax, where he partnered a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack, and won the Eredivisie title in 2001-02. 

A turbulent international career brought 51 caps, but he will mostly be remembered by European audiences as a maverick talent with a nomadic streak that never truly settled at any of his clubs.

8. Hakim Ziyech

To many football fans, Hakim Ziyech only came to wider attention in the past two years, but at 27 he is already a veteran of eight years of top-flight football in Holland’s Eredivisie. 

After spending two years each at Heerenveen and FC Twente, he truly blossomed after joining Ajax in 2016.

Despite representing the Netherlands at age group levels, the Dutch-born Hakimi eventually chose to play senior international football for Morocco, and in 2018 was part of the team that acquitted itself so well at the World Cup in Russia.

In 2018-29 he delivered some outstanding displays as Ajax progressed to the Champions League semifinal — where they were ultimately beaten in heartbreaking fashion by Tottenham — and also won the Eredivisie title. His performances against Real Madrid and Juventus, as well as his consistency in the Dutch top flight, quickly marked him out as one of  Europe’s hottest prospects. Chelsea emerged as the big winners in the race to sign Ziyech, paying €40 million for his services as of next season.

Holland’s loss is the Premier League’s gain.

7. Achraf Hakimi

Another young superstar on the rise. Achraf Hakimi remains officially on the books of Real Madrid — where he had spent a decade as youth and first team player — but has for the past two seasons proved himself as one of the continent’s finest right-backs with Borussia Dortmund. 

His forays into the opposition half and goal contributions, whether scored or assisted, have invited comparisons to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold as two of the finest players in their position today.

With his two-season loan deal in Germany about to expire, the Madrid-born 21-year-old is set to return to his parent club where coach Zinedine Zidane could well consider him ready to be starter.

Despite not playing in the 2017-18 Champions League final against Liverpool while still at Madrid, Hakimi claimed a winners’ medal to become the first Moroccan to achieve that feat.

Hakimi was part of Morocco’s squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and with 28 caps to his name already, a long and successful career at club and international level beckons.

6. Abdelkrim Merry (“Krimau”)

A true pioneer in every sense. One of the first Arab footballers to star in Europe, the man nicknamed Krimau played his entire career in France. But unlike many North African footballers who followed in his footsteps, the Casablanca-born forward would end up representing Morocco, rather than his adopted home, fleetingly but to great acclaim.

His meagre international career of only 13 matches included his nation’s memorable participation at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where Morocco topped their group ahead of European heavyweights England, Poland and Portugal.

Against the latter, Krimau captured the imagination of the watching world, scoring once and generally running the Portuguese defense ragged as Morocco ran out 3-1 winners. The result confirmed them as the first African and Arab nation to progress to the knock-out stages of the World Cup, where they narrowly lost to eventual finalists West Germany.

At club level, Krimau started off at Bastia before playing for Lille, Toulouse, Metz, Strasbourg and Saint-Etienne, to name just a few of his clubs. 

5. Noureddine Naybet

Younger fans may not be familiar with Naybet’s career, but the Moroccan international is to this day fondly remembered at Deportivo La Coruna, for whom he won one Spanish La Liga title, one Copa Del Rey and two Spanish Super Cups after joining from Nantes in 1996. 

Naybet, capped 115 times by his country, and a veteran of the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, had joined Portugal’s Sporting Club from Moroccan powerhouse Wydad before moving to France in 1993.

Rounded up his career in Europe in the Premier League with two seasons at Tottenham, but his heroics in Spain is what he will forever be revered for.

4. Mehdi Benatia

Yet another of the string of Moroccan internationals to excel in Europe, with his medal collection the envy of most footballers around the world.

The French-born Mehdi Benatia has spent the entirety of his career in Europe, starting out at Marseille before eventually moving to Udinese and then Roma in Italy.

It was at Bayern Munich and Juventus, however, that he hit the peak of his career, winning two Bundesliga and three Serie A titles respectively as well as enjoying German and Italian cup success.

Capped a wonderful career by leading his country to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after an absence of 20 years from football’s ultimate stage.

3. Riyad Mahrez

The gifted Algerian winger’s two Premier League titles could not have been in more different circumstances. The first, with Leicester City in 2015-16, is widely regarded as one of football’s most unlikely triumphs, one that to this day stretches credibility. The second, in 2018-19, was part of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City side that claimed the Premier League trophy for the second year running.

All of which makes his relatively modest introduction to English football all the more remarkable.

After joining Leicester from Le Havre at the start of 2014, he helped the club to win the Championship a few months later and, after a difficult first season in the top flight, that miraculous Premier League title as well as the PFA Player’s Player of the Year for good measure.

Remains one of a select group of 10 players to have won English football’s biggest prize with two different clubs.

2. Rabah Madjer

One of the first Arab players to make an impact in Europe. And what an impact it was.

Rabeh Madjer gained worldwide acclaim with the equalizer for Algeria in their stunning 2-1 win over West Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. That proved to be an inspiration for a stellar career.

After seven years at hometown club NA Hussein Dey, Madjer joined Racing Paris in 1983, before moving on two years later to Portuguese giants Porto, where he enjoyed the best and most memorable years of his career. Most famously, he scored a memorable back-heeled equalizer against Bayern Munich in the 1987 European Cup Final, which Porto eventually won 2-1.

Later that year he scored an extra-time winner against Penarol of Uruguay as Porto won the Intercontinental Cup (the predecessor to the FIFA Club World Cup) in Tokyo.

Three Portuguese league titles and 50 goals in six years confirm him as one of his nation’s, and Arab football’s, greatest exports.

1. Mohamed Salah

Arguably the most recognizable and greatest Middle Eastern and Arab footballer of all time. He excelled at Basel in the Swiss Super League, and then struggled to get playing time at Chelsea, before a spell in Italy with Fiorentina and Roma set him on the path for global domination.

Since signing for Jurgen Klopp’s team in the summer of 2017, he has become one of the world’s best players, his move coinciding with, even inspiring, Liverpool’s transformation from contenders to proven winners. In his first season, the man fans call the Egyptian King finished top of the Premier League scoring charts with a record 34 goals and played a leading role in Liverpool’s march to the Champions League final, where he famously was injured and substituted in a 3-1 loss. He also won FIFA’s Puskas award for a solo effort against Everton.

The following season, Salah retained the Golden Boot as Liverpool just missed out on the Premier League title, but made up for it with Champions League success, the forward scoring the opener in the 2-0 win over Tottenham in the final. This season, the 27-year-old Salah finds himself on the verge of winning the Premier League trophy, something Liverpool have not done in 30 years.

Having led Egypt — for whom he has scored 41 international goals — to the 2018 World Cup, his legendary status, at home and for Liverpool, is beyond debate.