Jockeys will compete in the inaugural race for amateur women riders worth Dh130,000, as the season starts in the UAE.
Ladies' first on opening day of the UAE horse racing season
When they come under the starters orders tonight for the first meeting of the season, racing at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club (Adec) will have reached a milestone, completing 20 years since it was held under the Racing Rules of the UAE.
The changes have been minimal in comparison to Dubai but the growth has been steady, particularly as the venue is hailed as the unofficial headquarters of flat racing for Purebred Arabians.
A significant addition tonight is the inaugural Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak IFAHR Cup for amateur women riders, a race with Prestige status for a purse of Dh130,000 that has drawn 12 riders from 12 countries, including Shathra Al Hajjaj, the Emirati jockey.
Al Hajjaj, 26, created a piece of history when she, along with Fatma Al Marri, 17, became the first Emirati jockeys to race on the flat at the Duindigt Racecourse in Holland in June.
Al Hajjaj finished seventh on Tarfa and Al Marri fifth on Vantage Lady, but more importantly was the fact they competed.
"Shathra is a far more improved jockey and you will see it when she rides in Abu Dhabi," said Eric Lemartinel, one of the leading trainers for the Purebred Arabians in the UAE and a former jockey.
"I watched her in Duindigt and told Lara Sawaya, the race director, I was willing to help her if she would like to learn. She [Al Hajjaj]did agree and she has now spent over two months, travelling from Dubai, five days a week.
"She has to start at three in the morning everyday to reach Abu Dhabi in time for her riding work. That itself shows her dedication towards her work. Needless to say her attitude and work ethics, she has been a quick learner."
Al Hajjaj will be wearing Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed's silks on board Baher, a 10-year-old chestnut, trained by Lemartinel.
Baher is the most experienced of the 12 runners with 53 career starts, winning six and placing either second or third on 12 occasions.
"In horse racing it is hard to pick a winner, but Shathra is on board a horse that will teach her a thing or two," said the Frenchman. "She has been on him in his riding work and has struck a good partnership with the horse."
Pat Buckley has been present from the start in Abu Dhabi when they staged a few experimental meetings in the 1991/92 season. The affable Irishman is in his 21st year in the job as racing director at Adec.
"We had the first meeting on October 1991, which was a trial period when the UAE Rules of Racing was first introduced," said Buckley, a Grand National-winning jockey on the unfancied Ayala in 1963.
"The difference between now and then is massive. When racing first started it was a tiny little grass track and the grandstand was where His Highness Sheikh Zayed used to watch the camels on display.
"Sheikh Zayed attended the very first meeting and it was made popular from that time. We also had Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid come for the races in those days, and most of the horses were owned by the Sheikhs.
"The last few years we have seen races introduced under the Wathba Stud Farm of Sheikh Mansour exclusively for private owners. This is a significant development to encourage the smaller breeders and owners of the Purebred Arabians.
"In those days we also used to go around looking for owners to enter some of their horses for the races. Now there are more than we can handle and the demand for more races is on the rise."
The capital's racecourse will stage 15 of the 53 meetings this season which are spread around Meydan Racecourse (21), Jebel Ali (11) and Sharjah (6).
Tonight's meeting was brought forward as November 6 falls on the Islamic festival Eid Al Adha. The season concludes with the Dubai World Cup on March 31.
‘It will be great to kick the season off’
ABU DHABI // Female jockeys will come under the spotlight in the capital tonight as 12 riders from 12 countries take part in the final race of the night in the inuagural Sheikha Fatima bin Mubarak IFAHR (International Federation of Arabian Horse Racing) Cup.
The opening meeting of the UAE horse racing takes place at Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club (Adec) today with the Al Rashid Investment race kick-starting proceedings at 5pm.
Another highlight is the penultimate race, the Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Prestige Cup, where Eric Lemartinel saddles Albar Lotis, who finished a creditable fourth behind Seraphin Du Paon in the Dubai Kahayla Classic on Dubai World Cup night.
Shathra Al Hajjaj will represent the Emirates in the Sheikha Fatima Cup over a mile on Baher, a 10-year-old chestnut son of Tidjani, trained by Lemartinel for owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed. Jazeerat Alsadyaat, trained by Ernst Oertel, the South African, is the third trainer in three years for the Al Asayl Stables of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, looks to be the pick of the entries under the Italian Elisabetta Marcialis.
“This is an exciting new challenge and I am looking forward to the season ahead,” said Oertel, who has five entries in the six-race card.
“Jazeerat Alsadyaat will hopefully run well, while Frysk Me Now and Time Out are going well, but that looks a very hot race [Prestige Cup]. Alawal Walakeer may be our best chance in the second race, the fillies’ maiden.”
Fatma Al Manji, from Oman, on board Muhal, an eight-year-old trained by Salim Al Hakmani for the Royal Cavalry of Oman, and Khadija Albastaki, from Qatar, on GRP Mudhish, trained by the Emirati Bakhit Al Ketbi, are the two other Arab female jockeys. They are joined by some experienced riders from Europe and the United States.
“It has been a few years since we had the opening meeting here at Abu Dhabi and it will be great to kick the season off,” said Pat Buckley, the racing director of Adec.
“We have a really good card with some top women riders in the featured Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak IFAHR Cup.
“That is the final race, following a top-quality Prestige Stakes, with several genuine Group 1 runners in it. That is part of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Cup series, while the Thoroughbred race looks very competitive as well, and it will be great to see the likes of Jamie Spencer and Michael Hills back in Abu Dhabi.”
Lemartinel has a strong hand for that prize with Albar Lotois, and the Frenchman said his charge is again being geared for a tilt at the Kahayla Classic at next year’s Dubai World Cup.
“He is very consistent and has come out well from the break,” said Lemartinel. “His long-term plan is to run again in the Kahayla Classic. He loves the tapetta and will be racing more at Meydan.”