Saudi Arabia is getting used to making a sporting splash but when the launch of the first Saudi Cup, a record-breaking $20 million horse race, was announced last month, it was perhaps the most ambitious attempt to disrupt the status quo yet.

Horse racing is one of the world’s oldest and most traditional sports; many courses in the UK and Ireland, such as Chester (1539), Newmarket (1623) and Downpatrick (1685), have been running races since long before the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932.

But despite the current international racing calendar being well established – its marquee races including the Dubai World Cup, Breeders Cup, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Hong Kong and the Melbourne Cup – the inaugural Saudi Cup has been slotted in on February 29, 2020 at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh.

With such a lucrative prize fund comes sky-high expectations and it is why no stone is being left unturned by Tom Ryan, the Director of Strategy & International Racing at the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia. Preparations for the inaugural Saudi Cup are in full swing and Irishman Ryan is confident the event will make an immediate impact.

“The biggest challenge is ensuring the overall standard is very high from the start,” Ryan tells Sport Industry Insider. “We know that if Saudi Arabia want to run the richest horse race in the world and pitch themselves in as genuine contenders on the world stage, year one has to be fantastic.

“I can remember when the Dubai World Cup launched it 1996 it had a few years to bed in and find its feet. But we have to do that from the get-go. Fortunately, as of now, we have quite literally some of the best horses in the world interested in running.”

With the Saudi Cup taking place a month before the Dubai World Cup, there has been some suggestion Saudi Arabia might be stealing the horse-racing thunder of its Gulf neighbours, whose renowned Godolphin stable has been a mainstay of the sport for the past 25 years. But Ryan insists that there has been nothing but support for the event from the UAE.

“During the development stage there was a great deal of communication with Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed,” Ryan explains. “He is completely supportive of this event and his view is that the rising tide carries all boats; if Saudi comes up a level with their offering it strengthens the Gulf region as a whole in the eyes of horse racing.

“It won’t detract from the Dubai World Cup which is obviously a fantastic meeting in its own right. In fact, we’ve already seen that a lot of American trainers in particular are targeting the Saudi Cup with the view to also run in the Dubai World Cup – they are putting their trust in the region for a two-race campaign.”

The Saudi Cup’s $20 million prize fund has attracted plenty of attention as it convincingly trumps the Pegasus Cup in Florida, which was the world’s richest race in 2018 before deciding to split its $16m fund across two races in 2019. The richest single race in 2019 was the $12m Dubai World Cup. Arriving at that landmark $20m figure was no accident for the Saudi Cup’s organisers.

Ryan insists Sheikh Mohammed is fully behind the Saudi Cup.

“Discussions started probably two years ago and there was always a desire to make this the world’s richest race. The prizes for events like the Pegasus, the Everest [in Australia] and the Dubai World Cup have been around $12m-$15m but they felt that going in at $16m could mean one of those races goes higher next year or the year after. That’s why the Saudi Cup was pitched straight in at $20m so it sits there legitimately as their race, the world’s richest race. It will definitely be a good few years before anyone tries to topple that number.

“Obviously the prize money is useful but I think it’s important to stress that this has to be coupled with an excellent venue and environment. We’ve had a number of the European international riders have been out to the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh and have endorsed its quality. Also, we have assembled a team here that is incredibly capable and when people involved in horse racing look at us they know they can trust us.”

Given the substantial investment from the Kingdom it is no surprise that the title sponsorship for the race will not be sold, however there are positive discussions ongoing with other potential partners.

“The Saudi Cup won’t have a sponsor as they want to keep it very clean from a branding perspective, which makes a lot of sense. Despite the fact we are in our first year and this event is unproven in terms of what returns can be derived from it, the conversations we’ve been having have been extremely encouraging.

“I’d say any sponsorship arrangements we have will be relatively simple because of the short run-in period but we are looking at a nice mix of very prominent Saudi companies and some noteworthy international brands.”

Saudi Cup Tom Ryan
Tom Ryan managed Ireland’s Naas racecourse before taking charge of the Saudi Cup.

Although football is still comfortably the most popular sport in the Kingdom, the Saudi Cup organisers are hoping the event can attract new fans to horse racing, who could in turn become horse owners and investors in the sport.

“I don’t think we’ll have a problem with filling the event with spectators,” Ryan says. “We’re having great fun at the moment discussing about the hospitality side of things. Obviously these big festival race meetings are largely a Western creation so we want to see that experience meet with traditional Saudi hospitality – it will be a great twist.

“The lifeblood of horse racing is the owners who invest in the horses and these owners are often encouraged by having positive experiences at the races first so this is where the Saudi Cup can provide a great opportunity and entry point. There is a lot to be said about engaging with the local community in that regard.

“Football is still top of the pile but I think horse racing has huge potential to be quite prominent in that grouping of sports that comes next.”

While the Saudi Cup is a brand new event, the Kingdom actually has a horse racing heritage that stretches back almost 50 years. Prince Khalid bin Abdullah al Saud is the owner of the prestigious Juddmonte Farms, arguably the world’s most successful breeding operation on a dollar by dollar basis.

For Ryan, who previously managed Ireland’s impressive Naas Racecourse for 12 years, it is now about transforming what has been a passion project for a small group of Saudi horse aficionados into a sustainable, wide-reaching industry.

“In terms of physical infrastructure, the track here in Riyadh is as good as you’d see anywhere in the world,” Ryan states. “The Saudi Cup is really only a statement of intent – we will quickly turn our attention to the wider promotion of horse racing in the Kingdom, offering structural support and guidance to improve the standard.

“We are trying to provide an environment in which the local horse owners can see a path of progression over the medium to long-term and build a structure that can sustain a high-quality thoroughbred industry. Ultimately we want Saudi Arabia to be a leading light in the horse racing world.”