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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Bahrain An Emerging Force In World Racing

Bahrain An Emerging Force In World Racing

We have grown accustomed to being able to enjoy some decent midwinter racing action from the Middle East since the start of the Dubai International Racing Carnival in 2004. The Dubai World Cup, for so long the world's richest race bar a temporary interruption to that status by the Pegasus World Cup, has been usurped in recent years by the $20 million Saudi Cup, which is set for its third running in 2022.

The Bahrain International Trophy was recently staged for a third year, and for the first time it carried Group 3 status. Furthermore, it was the forerunner to the inaugural 10-race Bahrain Turf Series, which got underway last Friday and runs until Feb. 18 across seven meetings at Sakhir racecourse. The growing status of the racing programme on the island could yet lead to wider cooperation between the racing jurisdictions of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to establish a formal Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region series.

When interviewed for TDN recently, Neil Callan, who is riding in Bahrain throughout the winter, spoke of the conservative nature of the Bahraini people.

“They don't really like to announce that they've arrived,” he said. “But they are slowly but surely putting themselves on the map and I like the way they are doing things. They are doing it their way and it's gradual.”

That certainly appears to be the case, but there is also no denying the level of ambition from those behind the efforts to enhance the racing programme in Bahrain.

Shaikh Isa bin Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, chairman of the high committee of Bahrain's Rashid Equestrian and Horse Racing Club (REHC) and the grandson of the King, said on the eve of this year's International Trophy, “It's been three years in the works. We have our Group 3 status now and we will not stop at one Group 3 race. As it was in year one with the Bahrain International, it was a strong race but people I felt were just testing the waters and have taken the plunge in years two and three. The Turf Series I feel is going in that direction.”

This year's Bahrain International Trophy, won by the Yorkshire-based Lord Glitters (Fr), featured runners from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany, while in the first two legs of the Turf Series there were 10 horses from outside Bahrain from the British stables of George Baker, Micheal Bell, Stan Moore, William Jarvis, Keith Dalgleish, Jamie Osborne and Charlie Hills. George Baker, who has stated his desire to operate a satellite stable in Bahrain, currently has two horses on the island.

“We're dipping the toe in this year. We had planned to have a stronger presence over there and to perhaps train some local horses as well as imported horses, but this year has really stymied a few of those plans,” said Baker, referring to the difficulties presented by Covid travel restrictions. “The British Ambassador was planning to have a drinks party for 100 people but we just haven't been able to do that, so we haven't been able to attract new people to the sport to set up local syndicates in the way that we hoped we would.”

He continued, “I have been very impressed by the enthusiasm of the whole team. Their ambition is tangible and they are great people to deal with. I feel very positive about it and in the fullness of time we hope we will have a permanent presence there through the season. It just hasn't evolved through this year, and that is nobody's fault, but it will evolve for sure.”

Evolution is certainly at the forefront of the plans of Shaikh Salman bin Rashed Al Khalifa, the executive director of REHC.

“I'm very happy to say that the Kingdom of Bahrain has been approved this year as a part two racing jurisdiction, up from part three,” he said in November.

As well as the Bahrain International Trophy's promotion, the International Grading and Race Planning Advisory Committee has awarded listed status to the Al Mehaq Cup, His Majesty the King's Cup and His Royal Highness The Crown Prince's Cup. The addition of a black-type sprint to the international card is also on the wish list.

Shaikh Salman continued, “Ultimately our main goal is to promote Bahrain in general as a racing jurisdiction and to seek more recognition from the Pattern Committee. So my goal here is to set down a solid base for races to be approved by the IFHA, and I think it's a great start for us to get three races from our local calendar, three local graded races, to be approved as [international] listed races.”

Horses play a prominent role in the heritage of Bahrain and while racing has taken place for centuries through informal meetings, the REHC was established and officially recognised in 1977. There are now around 350 horses in training on the island, many of them having been purchased and imported at horses-in-training sales in Britain and Ireland.

Bahrain's links to Britain in particular are evident in the names of a number of high-profile owners, including Shaikh Sultan Eddine Al Khalifa's Al Mohamediya Racing, which owned the G1 Commonwealth Cup winner Golden Horde (Ire) (Lethal Force {Ire}). Roger Varian currently trains the 2-year-old Pure Dignity (GB), a Dubawi (Ire) half-sister to Sottsass (Fr) and Sistercharlie (Ire) who topped the Arqana Select Sale in 2020 at €2.5 million when bought by Oliver St Lawrence and Bahraini trainer Fawzi Nass for Shaikh Nasser Al Khalifa and his brother Shaikh Khalid's KHK Racing.

Furthermore, the honorary president of the REHC is Shaikh Abdullah bin Isa Al Khalifa, who has horses in training with Jonathan Portman and William Haggas, and is also a breeder in Britain, most notably of the Derby winner and successful Coolmore stallion, Camelot (GB).

Neil MacKenzie Ross, well known to many in British racing as the former clerk of the course at Lingfield, has been in Bahrain for seven years, where he performs the same role for the two turf courses at Sakhir.

“As soon as I got here I had numerous projects, the first being to install a new irrigation system for both tracks,” he noted. “In that time we've regenerated the inner track over the last couple of years and we have built the quarantine barns and added two new barns this summer.”

MacKenzie Ross added that the REHC is limiting the number of international horses to 20 throughout this first year of the series but that the new quarantine facilities can now stable 50 horses.

He continued, “There's been a lot of work on things like rubberising the paddock, installing new running rails, even things like putting a sauna in the jockeys' room. You name it, we're looking at it. At the moment we are working with Weatherbys who are building a racing software programme for entries and the studbook. We have brought in three vets from Baker McVeigh and Rob van Pelt is here as our regularity vet now.”

Another name that may be familiar to racing visitors to Bahrain is Olivia Hills, who has a wide range of experience with media, owners and trainers through her former roles with Ascot Racecourse and Jockey Club Racecourses, and is now employed as owners' and trainers' manager for the REHC. Her fellow recent recruit is racing client services manager Edward Veale, who was formerly with the International Racing Bureau in Newmarket.

The Turf Series, which resumes during the fixture of Dec. 31, is divided into two categories, one with races over six or seven furlongs and the other over nine or 10 furlongs. All races carry prize-money of £50,000.

“I think that during their time here in Bahrain, every horse should be able to participate in at least five races,” said Shaikh Salman. “It's a great alternative for winter racing in Europe. We took these decisions based on a lot of feedback from European trainers. I think trainers are keen on having more options, and it falls at a good time of the year.”

He added, “It has been a learning curve for us all since year one. I'm very happy with the progression and the pace of the development happening on the international calendar.”

Shaikh Salman was also keen to point out that the development of racing in the country is not all about attracting international runners to Bahrain.

“There's no doubt that local horses will have a good stake of the series,” he said prior to the first meeting, and indeed the Al Manama Cup and Al Muharraq Cup on Dec. 10 both fell to domestic runners.

He continued,”The international events are key to promote racing in the region but investing in our local trainers and jockeys is another point that we are concentrating on. We've set up a new jockey academy recently in affiliation with RACE Ireland, who are here at different times of the year to train our local jockeys. And I'm very happy to say that after they've completed two courses with the academy, we've noticed a jump in their performance and their skills and quality of riding.”

Ultimately there may well be a formalised multi-national racing series within the GCC region, with talks already underway between the REHC, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia and the Dubai Racing Club regarding a coordinated racing programme across the three jurisdictions.

“We have to work towards this because we are only as strong as each other,” said Shaikh Isa. “The more we work together and unify our best practices, the stronger the GCC will become as a unit for racing and we are well down the road towards having a GCC series.”

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