RIYADH: In February 2020 the world of horse racing changed forever.
This was when the eyes of the world turned to the Saudi Cup, taking place at Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz Racetrack for the first time, and saw the competition become the world’s richest horse race, surpassing the Dubai World Cup.
At stake was $20 million in prize money, with the two-day event attracting the finest riders from around the world.
On Friday, Feb. 28, the Jockey’s Challenge began, consisting of eight races, which included some of the Kingdom’s most talented riders.
It would mark the first time that female jockeys were allowed to race in the Kingdom and they stormed to some of the day’s most memorable victories.
Sibylle Vogt of Switzerland, who claimed the day’s fourth challenge race, and a 97th career win, could not hide her delight at beating a very special opponent.
“My idol is Frankie Dettori and I’m so happy he was behind me,” she said.
The following day, Saturday Feb. 29, 2020, Maximum Security made history in the presence of King Salman as the first winner of the Saudi Cup, taking home $10 million.
Luis Saez rode the Jason Servis-trained 4-year-old to a victory many had expected, with Midnight Bisou finishing second to collect $3.5 million, while Godolphin’s Benbatl trotted away with $2 million in third.
The pandemic might have swept the globe in the following weeks, but when the second running of the Saudi Cup came around in 2021, even more was at stake.
On offer at the International Jockeys Challenge was $400,000 per race, as well as 15 points for the winner, with the next four finishers winning 10, seven, four and two, respectively.
It proved memorable for overall winner Shane Foley, while Saudi jockey Adel Alfouraidi came in second, with veteran American Mike Smith third.
“This is a great event, the prize money is amazing,” Smith said. “When the purses are $400,000, and when people travel a long, long way, it makes it worth their while,” he said.
But the glory went to Saudi-owned Mishriff who beat American horse Charlatan to land the showpiece Saudi Cup.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was present to award three trophies to the owner of the horse Prince Abdulrahman bin Abdullah Al-Faisal, jockey David Egan and Thady Gosden, on behalf of his trainer father John Gosden, respectively.
The following year saw the return of crowds to King Abdulaziz Racecourse as 240 horses from 16 countries competed for an increased total purse of $35.1 million. It was Saudi longshot Emblem Road that came from behind to claim a surprise win and top prize of $10 million in the headline race.
The outsider, ridden by Panamanian jockey Wigberto Ramos, came up on the outside in the home straight to win a five-horse sprint by a head from US trainer Bob Baffert’s Country Grammer.
Panthalassa grabbed Saudi Cup glory in 2023 with Japanese jockey Yutaka Yoshida beating out Frankie Dettori and Country Grammer for victory in the $20 million race.
It was heartbreak for trainer Baffert and his runner Country Grammer, for the second year running, who is still seeking a Saudi Cup victory.
Panthalassa had set off at a blistering pace at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse and could not be caught.
At one point during the sprint, it looked like it would be a Japanese one-two-three-four, and though Dettori pulled a late rally out of Country Grammer toward the end, the winning line came up just too soon as he was narrowly denied once again.