While the British horse economy still struggles, bloodstock giants Coolmore and Godolphin were forced into a bidding war with the bottomless wallets of Qatar at last autumn’s yearling sales in Newmarket.
From virtually nowhere, two new racing powerhouses, Qatar Racing and Al Shaqab, are grabbing the global spotlight, thanks to the unimaginable wealth — even by the dizzy standards of the oil-rich Gulf — of the ruling Al Thani family.
Political stability during the 18-year reign of Sheikh Hamad enabled Qatar to capitalise on its natural gas reserves. The Qatar Investment Authority sunk $100billion into The Shard skyscraper in London, Barclays, Heathrow airport, Harrods, Volkswagon, Sainsburys, Siemens, Royal Dutch Shell, Total and news giant Al Jazeera, which has its headquarters in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Qatari money has also boosted the British Champions Series and British Champions day through sponsorship by QIPCO — a private investment company owned by Sheikh Fahad Al Thani. Earlier this month QIPCO became the first commercial partner approved by The Queen for Royal Ascot — having a “branding presence” on the first day of the meeting.
The average Qatari income is a staggering £60,000 per annum. Many want to spend new-found disposable cash on horses of any sort; a community riding academy in Doha has suspended membership applications through excess demand.
At the top, Qatar’s equestrianism pre-dates its headlining racing interests through the expanding interests of Al Shaqab, Sheikh Hamad snr’s original Arabian stud.
The fabulous Al Shaqab equestrian complex in Doha has hosted a Global Champions Tour (GCT) final, albeit to a small crowd; the stadium staged its first CHI (international horse show) in March.
Qatar last year copied Saudi Arabia’s pre-selected squad approach in showjumping, under the guidance of GCT supremo Jan Tops.
“I’m very pleased with the progress and we expect to have a full team at WEG 2014,” said Tops.
Qatar’s most successful rider is Sheikh Ali Bin Khalid Al Thani, a mainstay of the GCT series and ranked 93rd worldwide.
Qatar’s profile in racing rises
The newer racing operations are also putting their trust in established advisers.
Al Shaqab’s Nasser Alkaabi said the organisation’s boss Sheikh Joann would continue using British and French trainers — notably Richard Hannon, Marco Botti and Luca Cumani.
“We respect them and hope to remain with them for many years to come,” he said.
Alkaabi distanced Al Shaqab from the volume-driven tactics of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum’s Godolphin operation, favouring “quality over quantity”.
“Of course, Sheikh Joann has come into racing because he likes to win, he does not want to be second,” said Alkaabi. “But we believe the success of Qatar horses overseas will encourage wider interest in horses at home.
“When more Qataris take-up riding, our own jockeys of the future will emerge.”
Harry Herbert, new adviser to Al Shaqab, added: “I have been in racing for 30 years, but am very excited about this and being part of a team that is very serious about the bigger picture.”
There is rivalry between different Qatari factions, too. After Sheikh Joann won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with multimillion pound purchase Treve, his cousin Sheikh Fahad retorted that “value” was more important.
“We would not have done that,” he said. “I could easily pay £20million and win the Derby, but that’s definitely not our strategy.”
They all want to breed winners, though. Qatar Racing already stands stallions at Tweenhills Farm and bought its first Irish stud last year. Al Shaqab has admitted an interest in new-on-the-market Banstead Manor Stud, Newmarket, home of Frankel and owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
And a Qatari desire to promote pure-bred Arabians off the back of Flat racing sponsorship was boosted by Qatar Petroleum’s backing of a Group One Arab race at Longchamp in October. Alkaabi said Al Shaqab will attempt to tie Arab racing into its Flat racing sponsorship, too.
Qatar will have a second, new racecourse of its own, in addition to Al Rayyan, within 5 years.
Sporting activity is not without controversy. Qatar’s now infamous bid for the 2022 World Cup soccer final was followed by shocking allegations that 44 Nepalese workers died last summer during stadium construction.
Considerably less important, but worrying for equestrianism, is Qatar’s recent spike in FEI positive dope tests in endurance, and the tendency of critics of Middle East endurance to bracket Qatar alongside the UAE and Bahrain.