Chasing $20M in horse racing’s battle of riches
When Diomed pipped Boudrow to victory in the original Derby in 1780, owner Sir Charles Bunbury pocketed a little over £1,000.
Britain’s richest race offers more than £921,000 (more than $1 million) to the winner these days, but even that bumper pot is dwarfed by some of the riches on offer around the world.
And it seems horse racing’s financial arms race is gathering pace, with the title of world’s richest race changing hands three times in the last two years.
Until 2016, the Dubai World Cup was the market leader, with the winner that year California Chrome scooping nearly $5 million.
Then came a new edition to the calendar, the Pegasus World Cup in Florida, with an eye-watering purse of $12 million with almost $7 million going to first-placed Arrogate.
The Pegasus even boosted its pot to $16M the following year, before dropping the purse to $9 million and spreading the wealth across two races in 2019.
But next year, a megabucks sum of $20 million will tempt owners and trainers to Saudi Arabia for the inaugural Saudi Cup . A first prize of $10 million — three times as much as for Europe’s richest race the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe — is likely to grab plenty of attention in the racing world.
According to Alastair Donald, of global race promoter the International Racing Bureau, the Saudi Cup is not just a brazen attempt to be biggest and best.
He draws parallels with the Dubai World Cup, which was devised by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 1996.
“I don’t think being the richest was the aim,” said Donald of the Saudi Cup.
“It was just like Sheikh Mohammed’s aim to create something that was special at the time in terms of being worth a lot of money. That was just part of the plan to put Dubai on the map as a racing nation and as somewhere that was going to become a holiday destination.
“I think it was successful and has stood the test of time – it’s still one of the great meetings.”
He added: “This is headline-grabbing stuff and it’s more about making a statement about Saudi Arabia to announce itself to the racing world and create something that’s a statement of intent.”
After two chart-topping years, Pegasus organizers split the cash across the original dirt race and a new turf race to attract more international talent.
“It’s just about evolving,” Tim Rivto, COO of organizer The Stronach Group, told CNN Sport. “I think when we look back in 20 years, it’s going to look very different from what it looked like in the beginning.”
The Saudi Cup is the latest in a series of sport and entertainment ventures aimed at improving the image of Saudi Arabia to the wider world.
Prince Bandar bin Khalid al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, says he hopes the event will entice racing fans to “come and take a closer look at our culture and our country: explore a place they’d never thought of visiting and perhaps see it anew.”
“The Saudi Cup is similar to what Dubai has done,” adds Donald, whose company was pivotal in the launch of the Dubai World Cup as well as the lucrative Breeders’ Cup 12 years earlier plus the Japan Cup, first run in 1981.
“It’s been quite carefully chosen in terms of its timing and where it fits in the calendar between the Pegasus and the Dubai World Cup.
“Plus, the world needs new people to come to the market. This will bring more Saudi owners into the game adding to the current markets.”
Sport is playing an increasing role in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to modernize the country and to garner some positive publicity worldwide, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi . Saudi’s human rights record and treatment of women is also highly controversial.
Female jockeys and trainers will be “most welcome” at the Saudi Cup, Prince Bandar told guests at a lavish launch in London.
Donald is confident that the Saudi Cup is here to stay as the world’s richest race for the foreseeable future, with no current other race suitor lurking with bottomless pockets.
“I don’t think that many places are in a position to stage the richest race,” he added.
“The proof will be in the pudding and only time will tell. I don’t think others will push the envelope for now. I certainly don’t think we’re going to get into a competition of one country trying to outdo another. I don’t think this will, for example, act as a spur for Sheikh Mohammed.
“The races aren’t in competition with one another. We’re always trying to open into new markets and this is one.”
The inaugural Saudi Cup will take place at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh on February 29 on dirt over nine furlongs.