On the surface, it has it all: a beautiful, state-of-the-art new facility, a good, safe, fair dirt racing surface, some of the best dirt horses currently in training, and at $20 million, a mammoth amount of money. Tomorrow, at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, fourteen horses will be running for more money than any group of horses has ever competed for in the history of the world.
The $20 million purse has drawn a great field. Horses and their human handlers have converged on Riyadh from all over: They’ve come from the Middle East, the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, all for a slice of that enormous purse, especially the $10 million winner’s share. Entrants include an American contingent of Maximum Security, last year’s champion 3-year-old; Midnight Bisou, who was the champion older female in 2019; and multiple Grade 1 winner McKinzie. The international brigade includes Benbatl, the English-bred winner of multiple Grade 1s; Magic Wand, the Coolmore runner who has competed at the sport’s highest level across the globe; and Chrysoberyl, the undefeated Japanese-bred 4-year-old who won the Grade Champions Cup, which is about as big a dirt race as there is in Japan, at Chukyo Racecourse in Tokyo in December. It really is a world-class group of Thoroughbreds.
I am exactly the target audience for an event like this: a fan of horse racing, in the U.S, mostly, but also internationally; and I especially love the sport at its highest level. There just isn’t anything else like the Royal Ascot meeting, the Melbourne Cup, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, or the Kentucky Derby. These events are, for me, as good as the world of sport gets, so one would think that I would take to the Saudi World Cup like a duck takes to water.
Why, then, will I not only not be watching it, but intentionally avoiding the entire thing?
We’ll start with the sporting reasons. The first is basic: Horse racing in this country is in trouble, pretty dire trouble, in my opinion, and the last thing the sport needs is having its best horses lured abroad by piles of money. Too few horses earn name recognition among sports fans, but Maximum Security is one, and he should be running at Gulfstream Park or Churchill Downs, not in a country track eight time zones away from Florida and Kentucky. The same can be said for Midnight Bisou: A race like the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn would be a natural spot for her, and fans would line up to see her in it, but her run in the Saudi Cup makes that extremely unlikely.
But my reasons for taking a pass on the event are only partly sporting: The regime in Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records in the world, and I just can’t get excited about a race whose intent is to distract people from that fact. Yes, I love horses, and yes, I love the sport of horses competing against each other, but for me, a race in Saudi Arabia is just a step too far. This is supposed to be sport, remember, and sport is supposed to be fun, and what the Saudis have done is, to understate it by about 10,000%, no fun at all.
Gulfstream Park has a terrific card tomorrow, highlighted by the Fountain of Youth Stakes, the most important Kentucky Derby prep race so far this year. I will enthusiastically watch, and bet on, those races. But I will neither watch nor play the Saudi Cup, and I hope that its inaugural running is its last.