It all started in the Middle East. The bedouins there had a different kind of warfare. Something the crusaders from Europe soon discover – the hard way.
The heavily armed knights on heavy horses were sitting ducks to the swiftly moving bedouins on their fast, purebred Arabians. Not to mention, the bedouins were trained in what can most easily be described as hit-and-run tactics. Why? Because they realized that in order to come out on top in battle one must have the right equipment and the right training.
The equipment – the Purebred Arabian. The training – horse racing.
Clever crusaders from Europe soon realized that those keys to success could be copied. Arabian horses were brought back to Europe in order to add the necessary speed to domestic horses. And thus, what was to become known as ”the Thoroughbred” was created. The concepts of selective breeding and horse racing as a training tool became the norm in the West, too. Long before racing evolved into a spectator sport
But now the original racehorse is striking back. Globally, Arabian racing is quite possibly the fastest growing type of racing.
”Many have the idea of the Purebred Arab being a horse bred for its beauty, but that is completely wrong.” Those words belong to Mohammed Al Nujaifi. Al Nujaifi, who is a Doctor of Agricultural Management at Oxford University, also owns a 20,000 acre farm in the north of Iraq. Here his family has bred Purebred Arabians for some 300 years.
There has never been a tradition of breeding for subjective beauty in this part of the world. That started in the west about 100 years ago when machine guns and motorized armies made the war horse redundant. In turn, rich people found themselves with horses they did not really know what to to do with …
”My research shows that racing has been the primary breeding selection tool for all breeding of Purebred Arabians in this region,” said Al Nujaifi.
In the Middle East, European-style racing took off in the early 20th century. The horses used at the hippodromes in North Africa, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey were often Arabians. And even if racing in Europe primarily became an affair for the Thoroughbred, there was a place for Arabian racing even there.
In France, Poland and Russia, Arabian Racing found its place in the regular racing scene about the same time. Later on, Arab horse enthusiasts who were inspired by Poland’s programme managed to get Arabian racing started in a number of other countries. In the ’80s and ’90s, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE, started an Arabian racing avalanche in the countries around the Persian Gulf. Today, the International Federation of Arabian Horse Racing (IFAHR) counts more than 20 members.
”Arabian racing can be said to very polarized,” said Genny Haynes, Director of the Arabian Racing Organisation in the UK.
And the expansion is not stopping
”On one hand we have the very wealthy people from the Middle East who are both active as sponsors, owners and breeders. And on the other hand we have the very small private owners who often train their own horses. This has created a very interesting global community feeling that is unlike anything else I have seen in the racing world. And one that itself has led to new people coming to the sport. There is a comradeship that I find quite unique. And where the big players actually help the small to survive – not least through various sponsorship programmes.”
Same but different
Arabian racing is exactly the same sport as Thoroughbred racing, only with another breed of horses. In several countries, a race day features half Arabian races and half Thoroughbred races. But more often than not, there is one Arabian race ”on the card.”
Today Arabian races are a part of several of the biggest race meetings, at the most prestigeous race courses in the world: The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, King George-day at Ascot, Preakness day at Pimlico, Dubai World Cup day at Meydan. They all have Arabian Races on the ”card.”
There are several Arabian races with purses of $ 1 million or more.
Erwan Charpy has been training both breeds for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai for many years.
”Arabians are a little bit smaller and about 10% slower than an average Thoroughbred,” he said. ”But a good Arab on a fast track can easily be quicker than a lower rated Thoroughbred on a slow track. The difference is shrinking as the breeding gets better.”
Charpy who grew up at one of France’s National Studs has very warm feelings towards Arabians.
”They can be picky about the jockey, and with one rider on board they won’t run at all, whereas the same horse will go through fire for another rider.”
”They are different from Thoroughbreds,” he said. ”They seem to pay more attention to detail and have more integrity. They can be picky about the jockey, and with one rider on board they won’t run at all, whereas the same horse will go through fire for another rider.”
Many Arabian trainers say that you can’t tell an Arabian what to do. You have to ask it to do it for you.
In return, when an Arabian has taken you into its heart, you are there to stay.
While Thoroughbreds are allowed to run their first races at the age of 2, Arabians must not race until they are 3-years-old. But on the other hand, it is not uncommon to see a 10-year-old Arabian going to post.
”They are strong horses,” Charpy said. ”Less prone to injury and they are more easily fed. They also seem to be much more adaptable when it comes to distances. You often find the same horse racing from 1,000 to 2,000 meters.”
Many people who train Arabians do it from farms far way from race tracks. Dutch trainer Karin van den Bos does most of her fast work on a beach of the North Sea and races her horses with great success all over Europe.
”They don’t need fancy facilities,” she said. ”On the contrary; I feel that training in a varied environment is the best for them. It makes them strong and keeps them happy.”
In general there are smaller purses in Arabian racing than in those for Thoroughbreds. But, keep in mind the prices for the horses are also lower.
”It is often possible to compete on an international level with a homebred horse,” said van den Bos. ”Stud fees are rarely higher than a few thousand Euro and you can get a very good broodmare for about €10,000.”
Now, new players and more money are rapidly coming into Arabian racing. Sheikhs and organizations from the UAE and Qatar are investing heavily. The biggest event was when Qatar took over the sponsorship of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris on one condition: that there would be an Arabian race on the day. The Qatar Arabian World Cup is now run directly after The Arc – and has a purse of €1.000,000.
”This is our culture,” said Sami Al Boenain, chairman of the IFAHR.
”These horses are our pride and racing is where they show what they are made for. We have 50,000 people at Longchamp who love the Arabian race!”
The racing establishment has sometimes expressed fear that Arabian racing could be harmful to betting and other sources of revenue, but this has been proven to be wrong. In many cases the betting on Arabians is higher than on Thoroughbred races on the same card. In another effort to bring Arabian racing to the West, the Emirates Equestrian Federation in Abu Dhabi has recently sponsored races at classic American racecourses such as Churchill Downs and Pimlico.
”Arabians add that little difference that is needed in order to create an exciting raceday today,” said Neil Abrahams, the head of racing at the federation in Abu Dhabi.
”They are ’horses of a different colour’ – literally speaking.”
It is easy to go international in Arabian Racing.
At least five different sponsorship programmes are at hand to encourage international exchange.
HH Sheikh Mansoor Bin Zayed Al Nayhan Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival
Inlcudes four different series
HH Sheikh ZAYED BIN SULTAN
AL NAHYAN CUP
A series for the best Arabian horses in 10 cities on five continents. Including Australia.
WHATBA STUD FARM CUP
About 30 races aimed at local owners in 11 countries.
HH SHEIKHA FATIMA BINT MUBARAK LADIES WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
A world series invited female riders.
HH SHEIKHA FATIMA BINT MUBARAK APPRENTICE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
A world series for invited apprentoce jockeys
All these races have their finals in Abu Dhabi in November, when all participating riders are invited.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE UAE CUP.
This series includes Ireland and Russia and has introduced Arabian Racing on legendary tracks such as Churchil Downs. Purses up to €50,000.
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