They are part of Qatar’s culture and tradition, with the Arabian horse racing enjoying a rich history in the Middle East.
And now the vast wealth at Qatar’s disposal is funding an attempt to become a global power in thoroughbred racing too.
“Qatar has the best Arabians in the world and we’d like to keep it that way,” Qatar Racing Equestrian Club General Manager, Nasser bin Sherida al Kaabi, told CNN’s Winning Post.
“But we are now trying to improve our thoroughbreds so that we can compete on an international level with leading racing nations.”
Arabian horses are famous for their distinctive dished head shape and high tail carriage.
They originated in the Arabian Peninsula and are believed to be 4,500 years old, one of the oldest breeds in the world. In contrast the Thoroughbred was developed in the early 18th century.
English mares were bred with Arabian and other stallions to create horses with great stamina and speed. It is said that 95% of male thoroughbreds can be traced back to just one stallion, the Darley Arabian, born in 1700.
“Our passion for horses is something we’ve inherited and for us to own a horse or to be a horse owner is a privilege,” explains al Kaabi, “so we would like to keep this tradition for generations to come.”
Focus on Europe
Much like its investment in football clubs Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, the majority of Qatar’s horse racing projects are in Europe.
QIPCO, a private investment company in Qatar, became the official sponsor of the $25 million British Champions Series in 2011.
The climax of the series is the British Champions Day at Ascot, which is the UK’s richest race day with a prize pot of $6.2m.
In December 2014, Qatar signed up to partner with Glorious Goodwood, which was subsequently renamed as the Qatar Goodwood Festival. The 10-year deal, described as the biggest in the history of British racing, was reportedly worth $2.8m per year.
Qatar’s other horse racing tie-ins include a lucrative sponsorship of Europe’s richest event, the $6m Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe that takes place in Paris every October.
Qatar sees horse racing as a vehicle to increase the country’s international profile.
“Qatar is a big investor around the world, in sport, economics and different kinds of fields, including horse racing,” continued al Kaabi. “We play a major part in racing around the world through our investment in horses and sponsorships.
“The hope is that Qatar can compete around the world and to feel part of the horse racing industry.”
Qatar’s involvement in racing’s traditional European heartlands is growing. It’s hoped this will have a knock-on effect on the sport domestically.
Their premier international meeting, The HH Emir’s Sword Festival, was staged in late February for the 27th time at Doha’s Al Rayyan racecourse.
The event, including races for both thoroughbreds and purebred Arabian horses, boasted a $3.5m prize purse. Such is its prestige and significance it is regular attended by the Emir, HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.
It features the country’s richest race for thoroughbreds, the $1 million-dollar Emir’s Trophy, which this year attracted its highest-rated field with runners from across the globe.
Betting and alcohol are not allowed for religious reasons, contributing to a calm, almost “garden party” atmosphere.
Unlike many other race meetings, it feels like people are there to see the horses.
“We’ve had a lot of runners from overseas at this year’s Emir’s Sword Festival showing that international interest in Qatar racing is high,” explained Nasser. “There was lots of positive feedback from top trainers which was very pleasing to hear.”
Local runner, The Blue Eye, won his second Emir’s Trophy in three years. The finishing order reflected the increasingly international flavor of the race.
Runner-up Noor Al Haw is trained in Germany by Andreas Wohler, while US-trained Money Multiplier was ridden to third by star jockey Frankie Dettori.
Italian-bred and trained Mac Mahon finished fourth while Elbereth — who rallied to finish fifth — was bred by David Taylor, a children’s guitar teacher in England.
Wnning trainer Jassim Mohamed Ghazali is encouraged by the increasing strength of domestic racing in Qatar.
“I feel the contenders who have come from outside Qatar to race here now know it is not going to be easy,” said Ghazali, who is happy to lay down the gauntlet to the international riders.
“They need to know that there is a horse from Qatar, a trainer Jassim Ghazali, (an owner in) Mr. Sheail bin Khalifa al-Kuwari, and it is not going to be straightforward for them.”
It surely won’t be long before Qatari horses rival their high-profile ownership, breeding and sponsorship projects, and can take on the best of the world on the track, as well as off it.