x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Horse racing: East Asia is the new frontier for purebred Arabian racing

Following the World Arabian Horse Racing Conference, Geoffrey Riddle looks at the obstacles in front of racing of Purebreds and how to attract an international audience.

Female jockey Marta Pisarek rides Altesse Kossack, second from right, to a win in the British leg of the HH Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies World Championship. Pisarek will race in Abu Dhabi in November. Wam
Female jockey Marta Pisarek rides Altesse Kossack, second from right, to a win in the British leg of the HH Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies World Championship. Pisarek will race in Abu Dhabi in November. Wam

Purebred Arabian racing has come a long way in the past 20 years, but if the journey is finally to have a significant impact on the world stage, East Asia must be successfully brought into the sport, and fast.

Evidence of the first small steps towards creating a bridge with the Far East emerged at the World Arabian Horse Racing Conference in Toulouse, which ended this week.

Through the President Of The UAE Cup and the HH Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival, Arabian racing now operates in 17 countries throughout the world.

It is spectacular achievement for a sport that lives in the shadow of thoroughbred racing.

However, where every effort has been made to welcome China into the thoroughbred fold, not one of the 170 Arabian races worldwide is staged in the Far East.

Through the Asian Racing Federation, the UAE is naturally aligned with thoroughbred racing heavyweights Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. Lara Sarwaya, the director of the Sheikh Mansour Festival, highlighted that she hopes to include jockeys from those countries at the World Championships in Abu Dhabi on November 10.

"I will make sure that these countries are there," she said at the conference. "There will be a training and education conference at Abu Dhabi, and these countries have good apprentice jockey schools, so hopefully these jockeys will ride Arabians."

Harnessing the untapped audience in the East is just one aspect to the myriad of issues facing Arabian racing internationally.

Throughout the conference, the familiar lament was that Arabian racing is failing to penetrate the public consciousness worldwide, which is often due to a lack of media awareness of the sport in general.

The thoroughbred races on Dubai World Cup night in March were broadcast in America, for instance, but TM Fred Texas's bid for a repeat victory in the Dubai Kahayla Classic on the same card at Meydan Racecourse was not.

The World Arabian Horse Racing Conference was broadcast live in Abu Dhabi, and was live on the Sheikh Mansour series website, but it is the sport itself that needs oxygen, and not the politics behind it.

Arabian racing clearly has its equine heroes such as Kahayla himself, but their deeds are rarely told beyond the confines of Arabian racing in a way that Frankel and Black Caviar's exploits last year transcended sport in general.

"We would like to see more televised races and more important televised races," Boutros Boutros, the head of Emirates Airline corporate communications, said.

"No sponsor is a charity; we are commercial entities. Unfortunately, Arabian horses have yet to produce a real champion to talk about.

"What makes sport big now is celebrity action. Tennis [interest] goes up when there are good players on court, and horse racing is the same."

It is not just traditional media that is important, either. Television and print journalism may well stand on a plinth, but new media, and social media in particular, are becoming powerful tools to get messages across.

Football is frequently used as a template, and Fifa, the sport's world governing body, has 1.4 million Twitter followers. In contrast, the Emirates Equestrian Federation has 70 followers for their five tweets and the International Federation of Arabian Horse Racing Authorities has just 67 followers.

If Arabian racing is to attract new fans, and a youthful and sustainable following, these new methods of communication need to be looked at seriously by those who run the sport worldwide.

Stephen Bowey, corporate development manager for Invest AD, the Abu Dhabi Investment company that sponsors Arabian racing, felt that a lot more could be done to promote the sport.

"The passion about this sport is internal, it needs to channel its passion and spread its message to the world," he said.

"If you think of Arabian racing as a global business, it has to be integrated in all of its aspects.

"Proper communication, integration and communication across the world - that is what all good global businesses do. My sense is that while a tremendous amount is being done, there is still some way to go."

One area in which Arabian racing does have a significant advantage to most sports is how it has embraced women jockeys. The HH Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies World Championship is specifically designed to help female jockeys participate in the sport.

Sixteen women lined up in Sunday's race in Toulouse, won by Artex, and a similar number will contest the final on November 10 at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club.

"I believe the numbers of women jockeys are on the rise. Some of them are talented and find acceptance and support," Robert Litt, the French Arabian trainer, said.

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