x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 November 2017

Maria Ritchie determined to seize Dubai World Cup opportunity: ‘I am honoured people have put their faith in me’

Maria Ritchie will become only the second woman to saddle a runner in the US$10 million (Dh37m) Dubai World Cup when Special Fighter lines up at Meydan Racecourse on Saturday.

In this file photo Special Fighter, ridden by Fernando Jara, can be seen winning a 2,000m race at the Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 5, 2016, Pawan Singh / The National
In this file photo Special Fighter, ridden by Fernando Jara, can be seen winning a 2,000m race at the Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 5, 2016, Pawan Singh / The National

Maria Ritchie will become only the second woman to saddle a runner in the US$10 million (Dh37m) Dubai World Cup when Special Fighter lines up at Meydan Racecourse on Saturday.

Pioneering Australian trainer Gai Waterhouse sent over Juggler to finish sixth at Nad Al Sheba in 1997, so Ritchie will write her own little slice of history at the UAE’s leading racecourse. Compared to that legendary handler, however, Ritchie has held a training licence for barely a month.

It has been a sharp rise from the obscurity of being the assistant trainer to Musabah Al Muhairi, but the 49-year-old New Zealander is taking it all in her stride.

“I am very surprised that I was put forward to the position and I am honoured people have put their faith in me,” Ritchie says. “It was more relief when I heard Special Fighter had made it in to the World Cup as we have been aiming for this race since he finished fourth in it last year.”

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Read more

■ Dubai World Cup: Information guide

■ Dubai World Cup: The real ‘Olympics of horse racing’

■ Dubai World Cup: Line-up announced

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Al Muhairi was banned for 12 months for administering cobalt, a prohibited performance-enhancing substance, to Meydan winner Vivernus last month.

As a result, Ritchie inherited one of the most powerful stables in the UAE – the Oasis Stables – even if her contract with the Dubai Racing Club is only for the duration of Al Muhairi’s ban.

“I never thought in the UAE I would be in charge of a stables,” she says. “In the back of my mind I always wanted to train but it is very hard to go out on your own here.

“You have to rely on financial support, and rely on owners paying. There are a couple of female trainers operating outside the Dubai Racing Club: Elise Jeanne is doing so well this season and Veronika Aske has had a go a couple of times.

“It is a dream come true and I am very fortunate to have a shot at it, and of course, Gill Duffield had so much success when she was here. I hope I can justify the owners’ faith in me.

“Possibly it will be hard to go back to being an assistant at the end of the 12 months, but that is a long time away.”

Ritchie is quiet and thoughtfuland treads very carefully when she speaks. She does not come across as the most outgoing of characters but clearly has inner steel.

When asked about what she has done to settle the Oasis Stables tiller following Al Muhairi’s suspension, she said: “I have spoken to everybody and laid out Ritchie’s rules. We don’t want this to happen again. It is my name and the stables have a bad name. I called a meeting to talk to everybody and the staff are very happy that I have taken over. We are still a team. I said to everybody, that if they were not happy they could go, but nobody left.”

If no stable staff have departed, then two very high-profile horses have. Ritchie could have been much busier on the most valuable night in world racing had she saddled Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid’s Muarrab and AF Mathmoon to defend their titles in the Dubai Golden Shaheen and Dubai Kahayla Classic respectively.

Both horses have moved to Ali Rashid Al Rayhi’s Grandstand Stables, while the Minister of Finance also moved lesser lights Alzaji and AF Monsef.

Special Fighter was only 85 per cent fit when he chased home Long River in the Al Maktoum Challenge at Meydan three weeks ago, according to Ritchie.

The six-year-old son of Teofilo, who will once again be ridden by World Cup-winning rider Fernando Jara, tuned up on Saturday by working at Meydan over 1,600 metres.

It was an easy canter that segued in to a bullet 1,000 metres. With World Cup favourite Arrogate out on the Meydan track again on Sunday, Ritchie is very coy about the final time of those 1,000 metres.

“Let’s just say I am very happy with it,” she says. “He will breeze again at Meydan on Thursday. It was a great run last time, as it was first up for a year. He doesn’t have to lead in races as long as there is a good, even pace. I’m looking forward to this race so much.”

Eleven days ago Jara rode Enery to win a 2,200-metre handicap at Meydan, Ritchie’s first winner at the racecourse from just 10 runners. With $200,000 in prize-money at sixth place in the World Cup she can at least be hopeful that Special Fighter can trigger a big payday and at least match the exploits of Waterhouse’s Juggler.

Who is Maria Ritchie?

Ritchie was born in New Zealand, and she is from the South Island town of Cromwell in the Otago area. Cromwell is nestled at the confluence of the Clutha and Kawarau rivers, but also has one of the driest climates out of any town in the Land of the Long White Cloud. No wonder she ended up in the Emirates.

None of her family were particularly into racing, but enough to watch it on the television at the weekend. She felt the lure of pony club as a young girl and then progressed to show jumping.

She then applied for a job as an apprentice in Invercargill and first showed the desire to move abroad by going for a job in Singapore with Australian trainer Mick Kent. The season there allowed her to shuttle back and forwards but when a few of her friends informed her that they had successfully applied for a job in Dubai with John Sadler in 2000 she jumped on the bandwagon and never looked back.

It was a transient lifestyle at first but she is now here for the long-term, and her husband, Basil Ferreira, is an outrider for the Dubai Racing Club.

Graham Rogerson, the subsequent Melbourne Cup-winning trainer, had just set up his stable in Dubai in 2000 and Ritchie managed to secure a job with him, but he left after just one season and 14 winners. Keith Hawtin followed and left after 91 runners yielded just three winners, and Ritchie joined her friends at John Sadler’s Oasis Stables. Sadler then left, too, and in 2003 Musabah Al Muhairi took over.

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