Horses are entrenched in Arabian culture. Arabians were used not only for raiding parties, but also for sport, with records of horse being raced dating back centuries. Qatar, a peninsula in the Arabian Gulf is no different, with the Arabian horse part and parcel of the country’s history and culture.
Official races, held for both Arabians and thoroughbreds however, were established in Qatar in 1975 by decree of the Emir. Initially the racing season consisted of four race days, but by 1997 the program had been expanded to 20 race days and today the program consists of 53 race days.
2001 saw the construction of the current Al Rayyan racecourse, with the project incorporating a modernised Grandstand, with air-conditioned stabling, an indoor horse swimming pool, a new vet hospital and a farrier section. The course consists of two tracks, a 1600m turf track and a 1580m all-weather track. Adjacent to the course are 44 horse barns where the majority of the 1460 horses currently registered in Qatar are stabled. Interestingly there are more thoroughbreds (809) than Arabians (651) in training in Qatar.
Qatar first appeared on the world stage in 2011, when Sheikh Fahad bin Abdullah Al Thani won the Melbourne Cup with the French-bred Dunaden, once a lead pony for a string of Qatari racing Arabians.
Subsequently Sheikh Fahad in conjunction with his brothers, Sheikh Hamad and Sheikh Suhaim, formed Qatar Racing and Qatar Bloodstock. And following the establishment of Al Shaqab Racing by Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani, who famously purchased Treve before her first Arc victory, Qatar started emerging as the new super power of world racing.
Recent developments have been spearheaded by the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club (QREC), which runs the country’s only racecourse, under the patronage of the ruling Emir, HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. QREC’s establishment on the world circuit included the sponsorship of the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe weekend at Longchamp, the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury and since 2015, the five day Goodwood Festival.
The focus of QREC has now turned back to Qatar where the upgraded all-weather track has enabled an increase in fixtures, for thoroughbreds as well as Arabians. QREC’s aims and indirectly those of Sheikh Joaan and Al Shaqab are to elevate racing in Qatar by focusing on bringing international owners and trainers to Qatar for international races such as the recently held HH The Emir’s Sword Festival.
Nasser Al Kaabi, QREC’s general manager, explained the reasoning behind the Club’s focus on attracting international runners.
“I think bringing international owners and trainers to Qatar will uplift the local trainers. The more competition, the better. It will definitely help improve our racing. I want people to experience Qatar, to experience how important racing is to us. We want to be the best”, he said.
The HH The Emir’s Sword Festival comprising 22 races, for Arabians, locally bred thoroughbreds and imported thoroughbreds, attracted 31 international runners, including 17 thoroughbreds.
Victory in the first thoroughbred feature, the Group 2 Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Cup for thoroughbreds (1600m turf) went the way of the internationals with Baltic Knight (Ire), trained by Badr al-Abid in Bahrain and ridden by Duran Fentiman, returning victorious.
The Festival’s main thoroughbred feature, the Group 1 HH The Emir’s Trophy presented by Longines (2400m turf) saw six international raiders, including the Qatar Derby dead-heating pair of Rogue Runner (Ger) and Tannaaf (Ire) taking on ten local hopefuls. Current leading local trainer, Jassim Mohammed Ghazali ended his superb Festival on a high as the The Blue Eye (GB) took scant notice of the raiders, cantering home for a dominating four-length victory under leading jockey Harry Bentley for owner Khalifa bin Sheail Al Kuwari.
The Festival culminated with the running of the Group 1 H.H. The Emir’s Sword Trophy, the final leg of the purebred Arabian Triple Crown.
A close contest was expected between Al Shaqab’s Al Mourtajez (Fr), defending his crown and Al Shahania’s Assy (Qa), the winner in 2014. The expected duel ensued, but to everyone’s surprise Gazwan (GB), Assy’s stable companion, calmly charged past the duelling pair to claim victory by two lengths under an elated Richard Mullen. It was a one-two for trainer Julian Smart as Assy finished in second, relegating the game Al Mourtajez to third.
The 2106 HH The Emir’s Sword Festival was a considerable success and the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club can look forward to the 2017 renewal with the knowledge that they are continuing to elevate Qatar’s racing for both Arabian and thoroughbred runners.