Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more

Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more
Ons Jabeur of Tunisia reacts as she competes against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the women's singles quarter-final match at WTA Ningbo Open tennis tournament in Ningbo, in China's (AFP)
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Updated 03 November 2023
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Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more

Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more
  • Tunisian speaks exclusively to Arab News from the WTA Finals in Cancun

As Ons Jabeur burst into tears during an on-court interview at the WTA Finals in Cancun on Wednesday and announced she would be donating a portion of her prize money to Palestinian aid, many people around the world cried with her, including members of her team.

The Tunisian tennis star made a humanitarian plea, praying for an end to the bloodshed in Gaza.

“It’s very tough seeing children, babies dying every day,” said a tearful Jabeur. “It’s heartbreaking … it’s not a political message, it’s just humanity. I want peace in this world and that’s it.”

For many years, Jabeur has been referred to as the Minister of Happiness back home in Tunisia. Perhaps now, she has also become the Minister of Peace. 

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Always an honor to coach a human before the player,” wrote Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali on social media, in the wake of his compatriot’s emotional speech.

Jellali has been Jabeur’s coach for almost four years and has helped guide her to a series of history-making feats in the sport.

With Jellali in her corner, Jabeur became the highest-ranked African singles player in tennis history — peaking at No. 2 in the world last year — and the first African or Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final (she has made three).

The 29-year-old, currently ranked No. 7, is an icon and role model for the Arab world, Africa, and beyond, and has grown accustomed to the notion of representing something far bigger than herself. 

“She’s very happy to represent or to talk or to be there for the Arabs, Africans, Tunisians; if you ask her to do that, she’s the first one who’s in. Even if she has to play a match, she’ll go there and then go play a match,” Jellali told Arab News in an interview on the eve of the ongoing WTA Finals.

Jellali rarely speaks to the press and prefers to keep a low-profile, travelling the world with Team Jabeur, which predominantly consists of himself, Ons, and her husband/fitness trainer Karim Kamoun.

He is a true student of the game and a human encyclopedia when it comes to knowledge of Jabeur’s competitors. He says he considers himself “lucky” for getting to experience this historic ride with Jabeur.

“Before I started with Ons, the idea of seeing someone from my country playing at this level, it wasn’t just a dream, it’s like someone will slap you and say ‘wake up.’ You cannot imagine someone from your country, who is going to be No. 2 in the world or getting to the top 10, getting to three Grand Slam finals, and making it two times in a row to the WTA Finals — it’s a dream,” he mused.

While 2022 was a banner year for Jabeur, in which she won a maiden WTA 1000 title and reached two major finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, 2023 was arguably her toughest season to date, plagued by injuries and setbacks. Still, she managed to qualify to the WTA Finals for a second consecutive year as one of the top eight players in the race.

Jellali says it’s a “miracle” they made it to the season finale in Cancun, where Jabeur lost her opener to Coco Gauff but bounced back with a convincing victory over Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova in her second round-robin match on Wednesday. On Friday, she will need to defeat four-time major winner Iga Swiatek in order to advance to the semifinals.

“Just before the US Open we didn’t even know if we can finish the season,” confessed Jellali. “For us, this tournament is like a win-win week. We are happy to be here. It was one of the toughest seasons. Most of the tournaments that she played she was not fit 100 percent. So we were not expecting to be here and that’s why it’s a miracle.”

From health issues to knee, back, ankle, calf, and wrist problems, Jabeur tackled one injury after the other throughout the season. Despite that, she still managed to reach a second Wimbledon final and lift two champion’s trophies in Charleston and Ningbo.

“I can tell you that as a coach, I only had three weeks in this full season where I was able to do what I want (in practice with Ons). She was not fit at all. It started from the preseason, so even the preseason we didn’t do it properly,” explained Jellali.

“I remember before our Berlin tournament, onsite we had a 20-minute practice only, we weren’t able to play, then we went straight to the match. Every week there was something and we had to deal with all this.”

The team weighed their options between pulling the plug on the season in order for her to fully recover versus sticking to the schedule and managing her injuries week by week, ensuring it was not causing any further damage.

“At this stage we know that there is a part where you need to learn how to play with the pain. Now, where she has had three consecutive seasons where she needed to play a lot of matches, which she wasn’t used to before, we’re going to get a lot of this. So we decided to continue,” said Jellali.

Besides her physical woes, the mental toll some of Jabeur’s losses took on her was perhaps even tougher to overcome. The Tunisian suffered a narrow defeat to Beatriz Haddad Maia in the French Open quarterfinals before losing a heartbreaking loss to Vondrousova in her second Wimbledon final. Jabeur looked inconsolable after that match at the All England Club and even skipped a WTA 1000 event in Canada after that to give herself time to recover emotionally and psychologically.

After losing two major finals last year, even Jellali thought this summer’s Wimbledon was going to be Jabeur’s big moment to shine and fulfill a lifelong dream.

So what did he tell her after that gut-wrenching defeat?

“I told her, ‘We lost three finals, we cannot lose four finals,’” he said with a laugh. “No, I really told her, ‘If we didn’t get this final, that means there is something missing. We are not ready to win a Grand Slam final yet and I think it’s the best motivation to keep working and to try to improve ourselves more and more.’ That’s what I told her right after the final.

“And if we think about it, it’s the reality. Even me as a coach I thought that this time is going to be the right time. We had played two previous finals and I thought that she’s ready for that. But it’s not about tennis, it’s not about rhythm, and that’s what we’re working on.”

Jellali says he “100 percent has the faith” that Jabeur will win a Grand Slam and finds it his duty to keep the whole team in a positive mindset as they pursue this historic goal together.

“It’s very simple, we are getting close, but if she didn’t get it yet, that means there is something missing, it’s obvious, it’s clear. This final made us touch the exact thing we need to get over this. So we are giving a lot of focus on that aspect,” he added. 

“Basically it’s easy to say, ‘Just be yourself.’ I want to be myself but there are many things around. So we are working on all those things coming from outside the court, playing under pressure, putting herself in situations where she needs to feel the pressure and find ways to get out of that. That’s why I say this season is very important for the next ones. We believe and trust that it’s coming insha’Allah.”

There is a certain degree of pressure that naturally comes with competing at a high level in professional sport, but Jabeur also has the added burden of constantly playing for history, as she chases one unprecedented feat after another as a Tunisian, African and Arab woman.

After every win she picks up on the big stage, an interviewer asks her about being a trailblazer and what it feels like to represent an entire continent or region.

“My personal thoughts on that are that I think it’s true that these kind of things (making history) were giving her a lot of energy. Now it’s coming back against her,” said Jellali.

“Yes, it was helping, it’s good to play for everyone, it’s good to represent the Arab world, the African continent, and everything, but now it’s becoming a lot on her shoulders. Because now she needs to deal more with what’s coming on the court.

“Whatever is coming from the outside, it’s not going to be positive anymore, it’s negative. But at the same time, you can’t take all of this away just like that. There are steps.”

Jellali, who had never coached at this top level before, feels the beauty of his journey with Team Jabeur is that they are all experiencing these big moments together for the first time. Just like Jabeur is proving to the world that a Tunisian can make it to the upper echelons of the sport, she is also showing it can be done with an all-Tunisian team, while living and training in Tunisia.

“There are more players now in Tunisia and everyone is dreaming. Because they used to see Ons go to the same school where they used to go, practicing with the same coaches, she came out from there. So it’s normal. They will say, if she did it, why can’t we do it?” he said.

As they all continue to learn together, Jellali explained how they will have a different approach to this preseason, where they will make sure Jabeur is fully fit before she gets back to training in preparation for 2024; even if it means they start later than expected.

“I think she will gain a lot from this season and I can tell you that she’s more motivated than ever,” he said.


Mateiko, Gebreselama victorious at 2024 Ras Al-Khaimah Half Marathon

Mateiko, Gebreselama victorious at 2024 Ras Al-Khaimah Half Marathon
Updated 5 sec ago
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Mateiko, Gebreselama victorious at 2024 Ras Al-Khaimah Half Marathon

Mateiko, Gebreselama victorious at 2024 Ras Al-Khaimah Half Marathon
  • Thousands of runners took part in the 17th edition of the race on Al-Marjan Island

RAS AL-KHAIMAH: The 17th Ras Al-Khaimah Half Marathon on Saturday saw victories for Kenya’s Daniel Mateiko in the men’s category and Tsigie Gebreselama of Ethiopia in the women’s.

Making his third appearance in Ras Al-Khaimah, Mateiko lit up a foggy morning to storm home with a time of 58:45, finishing five seconds ahead of compatriot John Korir (58:50). Isaia Lasoi made it a clean sweep for Kenya in the men’s event, finishing third (58:55).

In the women’s race, Ethiopia’s Tsigie Gebreselama smashed her personal best by more than 30 seconds to win in 65:14 over 2020 Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon champion Ababel Yeshaneh (65:44), also from Ethiopia. Tanzania’s Jacklin Sakilu was a surprise third, beating her personal best by more than three minutes (66:04).

The two winners, who saw off competition from a powerful field of World and Olympic Champions, received their trophies from Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al-Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council member and ruler of Ras Al-Khaimah; Raki Phillips, CEO of the Ras Al-Khaimah Tourism Development Authority; and Abdullah Al-Abdooli, CEO of Marjan.

Hosted by the Ras Al-Khaimah Development Authority, the race was held exclusively for the first time on the fast and flat roads of Al-Marjan Island and the runners took it in their stride, despite unusual weather conditions which saw visibility limited to about 50 meters at the finish line.

A delighted Mateiko was relieved to finally get a win in Ras Al-Khaimah after finishing sixth on his debut in 2022 and runner-up to Benard Koech last year.

“I was the fastest man in the field and I promised myself I’d win here after finishing sixth and then second last year,” said the charismatic 25-year-old Kenyan, who dedicated his win to the late Kelvin Kiptum, the marathon world record holder who tragically died this month.

“The conditions were very difficult — it was windy, humid and a little foggy — so this is definitely the best win of my career so far.”

While Mateiko saw off a world-class field that included defending champion Benard Koech, who finished fifth (59:42), and New York Marathon champion Tamirat Tola, who took seventh in the women’s event, the hugely talented Tsigie Gebreselama underlined why she is considered one of her country’s finest prospects.

“I am so happy to have run a personal best today,” said the 23-year-old, runner-up in the Cross Country World Championship and a woman on a mission to break a world record.

“I was very worried about Peres (Jepchirchir) in this race so I was surprised when she dropped back. It’s a great win for me, and, while it’s too early in my career to think about the Paris Olympics, my aim is to break the half marathon world record.”

Olympic marathon champion Jepchirchir, one of the pre-race favorites and a three-time half marathon world champion, suffered a set-back early on in the race when a shoe slipped off, costing her at least 20 seconds.

In addition to the elite field, the event saw more than 5,700 runners compete across four race categories. As well as the half marathon, which drew the biggest turnout, running enthusiasts competed in 5 km, 10 km and 2 km races on a day when the sport’s best distance athletes rubbed shoulders with runners from all over the world.


Francis Ngannou: From humble beginnings to ‘Knockout Chaos’ date with Anthony Joshua in Riyadh

Francis Ngannou: From humble beginnings to ‘Knockout Chaos’ date with Anthony Joshua in Riyadh
Updated 54 min 59 sec ago
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Francis Ngannou: From humble beginnings to ‘Knockout Chaos’ date with Anthony Joshua in Riyadh

Francis Ngannou: From humble beginnings to ‘Knockout Chaos’ date with Anthony Joshua in Riyadh
  • The 37-year-old will take on the two-time boxing champion in the Saudi capital on March 8
  • Ngannou is in Riyadh for the PFL vs. Bellator Champions event taking place at Kingdom Arena on Feb. 24

RIYADH: The Saudi capital is fast becoming a favorite hunting ground for the towering figure of Francis Ngannou.

The 37-year-old stepped into the ring against Tyson Fury at “Battle of the Baddest” in Riyadh last October, and narrowly lost in a controversial split decision.

Next up is the anticipated bout against Anthony Joshua at “Knockout Chaos” in Riyadh on March 8.

And on Thursday it was announced that Ngannou’s Professional Fighters League debut will be against the winner of Saturday’s PFL vs. Bellator Champions bout between heavyweights Renan Ferreira and Ryan Bader at Kingdom Arena.

From his humble beginnings in Cameroon to becoming one of the world’s most talked about fighters, Ngannou’s journey is a testament to unwavering determination, grit and a relentless pursuit of excellence.

Speaking to Arab News as he trained at the newly opened Mike Tyson Gym in the Saudi capital, Ngannou recalled the pivotal moment where his hunger for success ignited after he moved to France.

“I remember there was a moment that I just wanted to fight, you know,” he said, adding: “I was very excited, was very angry, was training all the time. My kickboxing wasn’t great though, but I had the willingness to win. It was quite a good experience.”

With his sights now set on greatness, Ngannou is keeping a close eye on the world of boxing, and expressed his preference for Tyson Fury over Oleksandr Usyk when the two clash in a postponed fight later this year.

“I will go more for Tyson Fury,” he said. “I pick Tyson Fury and to be honest, I want him to win. I want the rematch to be for the undisputed.”

Ngannou’s journey intersects with the PFL’s strategic expansion into the Middle East and North Africa region.

Speaking on the launch of PFL MENA and the role of Saudi Arabia in the brand’s global expansion, Ngannou praised the organization’s regional approach.

“I think the PFL has adopted a great strategy in terms of creating PFL regionally and then getting people more involved,” he said. “When you have an event centralized in one place, of course, it is going to be in different prime times around the world. And then most of the time people don’t feel it.”

The partnership with PIF-owned SRJ Sports Investments marks a significant milestone for PFL, paving the way for future collaborations and opportunities in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

“I think in terms of sport globally the wind is blowing in this direction,” Ngannou said. “We can see that fighters now are coming here to fight. But what we don’t see is that at the same time, they are building fighters here.”

Mentally preparing for the high-stakes battle ahead, Ngannou’s training regimen embodies his unwavering commitment to excellence.

“I train, I train and when I have doubt, I train again and again,” he said. “I put my confidence in my training and the work that I have put in, and I believe that is going to pay off.”

As Ngannou sets his sights on leaving a lasting legacy, his vision extends beyond personal triumphs to nurturing the next generation of fighters in Africa.

“I hope to be remembered as a great athlete,” he said. “The person who stands up for himself and does everything that he has to do and never backs down, never gives up.”

When Ngannou steps into the ring for Knockout Chaos, he will carry with him the hopes and dreams of an entire continent, poised to make history once again.


Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh

Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh
Updated 24 February 2024
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Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh

Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh
  • The card includes 2 champion-versus-champion bouts; PFL Heavyweight Champ Renan ‘Problema’ Ferreira takes on Bellator Heavyweight Champ Ryan ‘Darth’ Bader
  • PFL Light Heavyweight Champ Impa ‘Tshilobo’ Kasanganay drops down to middleweight to take on Bellator Middleweight Champion Johnny Eblen

RIYADH: As the Professional Fighters League 2024 season gets underway on Saturday with what it is billing as the biggest mixed martial arts event of the year, the PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the fighters gathered for the weigh-in on Friday.

The card feature a pair of champion-versus-champion headline bouts, as some of the biggest names in combat sports go head to head inside the PFL SmartCage.

In the main event, 2023 PFL Heavyweight Champion Renan “Problema” Ferreira will take on Bellator Heavyweight Champion Ryan “Darth” Bader.

At the weigh-in, Ferreira, who is coming off his first championship campaign in the PFL, was 263.2 lbs. Bader, who has held the Bellator title since 2019, was 231.1 lbs.

In the other headline event, 2023 PFL Light Heavyweight Champion Impa “Tshilobo” Kasanganay drops down to middleweight to take on Bellator Middleweight Champion Johnny Eblen.

Kasanganay, who captured PFL gold in his first season, weighed in at 185.8 lbs, while Eblen, who aims to maintain his undefeated career record, was 185.5 lbs.

Two of the world’s top welterweights will clash in a catchweight bout, as two-time PFL champion Ray Cooper III meets reigning Bellator Welterweight Champion Jason Jackson. Cooper III weighed in at 182.4 lbs, and Jackson at 182 lbs.

Former PFL Heavyweight Champion Bruno Cappelozza will take on Bellator’s Vadim Nemkov in a heavyweight bout. Cappelozza weighed in at 236.2 lbs, and Nemkov at 238.1 lbs.

Leading PFL contender Thiago “Maretta” Santos faces top Bellator contender Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero. The former weighed in at 205.2 lbs, and the latter at 205 lbs.

A pair of the lightweight division’s elite will also go head-to-head, as 2023 PFL runner-up “Cassius” Clay Collard takes on former Bellator Lightweight Champion A.J. “Mercenary” McKee. Collard weighed in at 155.5 lbs, and McKee at 154.8 lb.

Official PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions weigh-in results:

PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions Card: 3 pm ET

PFL Champion vs. Bellator Champion — Heavyweight

Renan Ferreira 263.2 lbs vs. Ryan Bader 231.1 lbs

PFL Champion vs. Bellator Champion — Middleweight

Impa Kasanganay 185.8 lbs vs. Johnny Eblen 185.5 lbs

Catchweight (182 lbs) Bout

Ray Cooper III 182.4 lbs vs. Jason Jackson 182 lbs

Heavyweight Bout

Bruno Cappelozza 236.2 lbs vs. Vadim Nemkov 238.1 lbs

Light Heavyweight Bout

Thiago Santos 205.2 lbs vs. Yoel Romero 205 lbs

Lightweight Bout

Clay Collard 155.5 lbs vs. AJ McKee 154.8 lbs

Early Card: 12 pm ET

Lightweight Bout

Henry Corrales 155.7 lbs. Vs. Aaron Pico: 155.7 lbs

Lightweight Bout

Biaggio Ali Walsh 155.4 lbs vs. Emmanuel Palacio 152.6 lbs

Women’s Catchweight (165 lbs) Bout

Claressa Shields 164.4 lbs vs. Kelsey DeSantis 164.6 lbs

Featherweight Bout

Abdullah Al-Qahtani 146 lbs vs. Edukondal Rao 145.7 lbs

Amateur Catchweight (129 lbs) Bout

Malik Basahel 124.9 lbs vs. Vinicius Pereira 129.2 lbs

Pereira missed weight. The bout will be contested at 129 lbs catchweight.

 

 


Newcastle United double injury boost for Arsenal as Eddie Howe snubs Man United chief’s comments

Newcastle United double injury boost for Arsenal as Eddie Howe snubs Man United chief’s comments
Updated 24 February 2024
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Newcastle United double injury boost for Arsenal as Eddie Howe snubs Man United chief’s comments

Newcastle United double injury boost for Arsenal as Eddie Howe snubs Man United chief’s comments

NEWCASTLE: Alexander Isak and Joe Willock have handed Newcastle United a huge boost ahead of their trip to Premier League title challengers Arsenal.

The Magpies head to the Emirates Stadium in the late kick-off on Saturday hoping to net their first win at the venue for more than a decade. You have to go back to 2010, for an Andy Carroll header in a 1-0 smash-and-grab to find the last time Newcastle left the red half of North London with three points.

Coach Eddie Howe has confirmed his injury-ravaged squad will be boosted by the return of top-scorer Isak and former Gunners’ midfielder Willock, who has barely kicked a ball for Newcastle in the last 10 months.

“They’ve trained this week, it’s been good to see them back on the grass,” said Howe.

“It’s been a long time for Joe but he’s a huge player for us. It’s been great to see him back among the group, he’s a very popular member of the squad. Really pleased for him.

“He was battling so hard to come back and then he had a couple of setbacks along the way, they’re difficult moments because a player just wants to play, be fit and express themselves in a positive way.

“Joe has had that limitation placed upon him with his body and it’s been very difficult for him. I think he has handled himself really well. I think we’ve seen him mature in the last few months where he’s had to show a different side of his character to come through this period and I think as long as he comes back full pelt, we’ll see a better Joe Willock for that experience.”

On Isak, Howe says he will be careful, especially with the player repeatedly missing so much football this campaign due to a groin problem.

“With Alex again, a really important player, he’s trained well so we’re happy with both players. We’ll have to wait and see, we’ve got one more training session but I’ve been pleased with their progress.

“We’ll only play him if we feel he is fit to play. We won’t take any risks. We’re in the hands, really, of Alex and the medical team and we’ll make the right decision for both the short and long term.

“I hope the best is yet to come (from Isak). It’s a difficult one. People will talk about his injuries but he’s still contributed massively. He’s an incredible player, there’s nobody else like him in the Premier League in my opinion. He has talents that can transform our team and I’d love to see him stay fit and get the goals he’d love to score for us.”

Meanwhile, Howe was asked about the situation in relation to the club’s soon-to-depart sporting director, Dan Ashworth.

This week, newly rubber-stamped Manchester United shareholder Sir Jim Ratcliffe described any talk of Newcastle not allowing Ashworth to switch to Old Trafford in a timely manner as “silly” and batted away suggestions he would sanction the Red Devils paying a huge fee to cut short any waiting period.

Ashworth was this week placed on gardening leave by the Magpies after an official approach by Manchester United. However, it is understood that period of leave extends to 2026, as well as his contract containing a substantial compensation fee. Newcastle could be tempted to cut that short, if Ratcliffe coughs up yet more cash to free Ashworth up — although, that is very much at the Magpies’ discretion.

When asked if the Ashworth talk has been unsettling or disruptive this week, Howe said: “The day-to-day running of the football club, not at all. It’s something that has happened away from the players and training ground. It’s been business as usual for us. A normal week.

“Certainly the events this week have given that certainty. I said in my press conference last week is what we needed as a football club. We’ve got that now and look forward to the future.”

When asked about Ratcliffe’s comments on Newcastle’s demands being “silly” and “absurd,” Howe responded: “I don’t think I can respond to that. I don’t think that’s for me. I’m not involved in those discussions and I’ll stay well away.

“In these situations it’s about Newcastle from our perspective. But that is for other people to make those decisions, I’m not involved in that in any way, shape or form. I’m preparing the team to play Arsenal.”

Newcastle’s move to recruit Ashworth’s successor is already underway, with talk of the likes of Monaco’s Paul Mitchell in the frame.

Howe does not expect to be consulted on the process, even if he does have a clear opinion about what should happen next.

He said: “I don’t think I’ll be involved in the decision-making process but I think we will have discussions on the role and how I see that. But again I don’t think that will be definitive, it’ll be the club’s decision and rightly so. But of course it won’t just be my opinion that they will listen to, they’ll be listening to lots of different opinions from lots of different people.

“Hopefully at the end we just come to the right solution for the football club because hopefully the next person that comes in will be at the club for many years and will be able to take the club in the direction everyone wants it to.”

 

 


Maryline Eon wins International Jockey Challenge on opening night of Saudi Cup

Maryline Eon wins International Jockey Challenge on opening night of Saudi Cup
Updated 24 February 2024
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Maryline Eon wins International Jockey Challenge on opening night of Saudi Cup

Maryline Eon wins International Jockey Challenge on opening night of Saudi Cup
  • The world’s most valuable race meet, with total prize money of $37m, got underway with eight races at King Abdulaziz Racecourse

RIYADH: The Saudi Cup, the world’s most valuable race meet, got underway on Friday at Riyadh's King Abdulaziz Racecourse, with total prize money of more than $37 million up for grabs over the weekend.

Fourteen jockeys, seven women and seven men, competed in the Invest Saudi International Jockey Challenge across four of the opening day’s eight races, with French rider Maryline Eon emerging victorious with 25 points.

Reigning champion Camilo Ospina, a Colombian jockey who races out of Saudi Arabia, was runner-up on 17 points, with Victoria Mota of Brazil in third.

“It was very emotional to win this … and I can only thank the Saudi Cup for having invited me here today. Obviously it was going to be an emotional moment,” Eon told Arab News.

“I am really impressed with the track here in Saudi Arabia. It was my first time riding on the dirt and I wasn’t used to getting dirt in my face and everything. Everything is in really good condition.

“I was told when I was coming that the horses that I am going to ride would need a bit of work and that they would be outpaced in the early stages of the race. The handicappers showed me the races of the horse that I was riding and that was really helpful.”

Despite the unfamiliar ground conditions, Eon said she did not alter her approach to the races or her technique.

“I didn’t really change anything in the style of my riding and I just followed instructions,” she said.

“I would like to thank the country for making such an effort to bring women here and obviously I’m very lucky to win this championship, which is something I would have never imagined.”

In the other events, 16 riders competed in the 1,600-meter Mosef First Fillies Mile, the first race of the day, in which Ospina, riding Istita’aeh, took the lead with 300 meters to go and romped home for the win. First across the line in the 1,200-meter Saudia Sarawat Cup was Aezm Al-Riyadh, ridden by Tariq Almansour. Adel Alfarid, on Badr, was the winner of the 1,800-meter Lucid Tuwaiq Cup.

In the final race of the night, the Group 1 $1.5 million Ministry of Culture Al-Mneefah Cup, Tilal Al-Khalediah, the 2023 Obaiya Arabian Classic winner, was victorious.

Day 2 of the fifth Saudi Cup on Saturday will again feature eight races: the Ministry of Culture Jockey Club Local Handicap, the Group 1 Diriyah Gate Development Authority Obaiya Arabian Classic, the NHC Saudi International Handicap, the G3 Boutique Group Saudi Derby, the G3 Sports Boulevard Riyadh Dirt Sprint, the G2 Saudi National Bank 1351 Turf Sprint, the $2 million G2 Howden Neom Turf Cup, and the $2.5 million G3 Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap.