THEY call horse racing “The Sport of Kings” and during my time in Britain I have certainly always associated it with Royalty. I ran into Queen Elizabeth II during my first visit to Ascot a few summers ago, and am used to seeing some of the richest people in the world during my trips to race tracks. The sport generates more than £4 billion a year for the UK economy, much of it through betting, and many of the most famous meetings are as much a part of the High Society “season” as Wimbledon or the Henley Regatta.
Top hats off, then, to His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, deputy ruler of Dubai and the Minister of Finance, who is doing so much to democratise the sport. He is the mastermind behind the annual Dubai International Raceday at Newbury, the historic racecourse close to the Berkshire town which has been hosting meetings since 1905.
While there are still plenty of wealthy race goers who turn up at Newbury, it was the Sheikh’s intention to get thousands of more modest punters through the door. He has achieved this by not only letting people in for free, but by handing out free “goody bags”, and offering draw prizes including family holidays to Dubai and a Citroën C1 car.
Sartorial elegance is always very important at British race meetings, so there was a prize for the most impressive children’s hat, and best dressed lady. Sixteen local schools competed in the Arabian Rainbow painting competition: one that challenges youngsters to come up with an original “Newbury Races” design using acrylic paints on model horses. It has already earned upwards of £50,000 for West Berkshire schools.
“It’s not what you’d normally associate with horse racing at all,” said David Hughes, a father-of-four whom I met at Newbury at the end of July. “You think of it as a rich person’s sport, but this weekend it’s the complete opposite.
“I’ve been able to get my entire family into the meeting for free. The children have been given free gifts, and have a chance of winning more prizes, while participating in different activities – from face painting to ‘selfie’ competitions. It’s a fantastic day out. Watching the horses in action has been particularly enjoyable. They’re amazing.”
Despite showers and a brisk wind, an 8000 plus crowd watched eight races with horses from 12 different countries. Organisers said simple Arab values – and especially support for the family – were at the heart of the Sheikh’s generosity.
British children could be seen having body art applied to their palms and arms by Henna artists – a practice which is typical throughout the Arab World. Among them were three sisters – Jess, Tilly and Emily Wilshire – who said they would do it again. “Today has been a magical day,” Emily enthused.
His Excellency Mirza Al Sayegh, director of the Sheik’s Office said: “We love to see grandparents, parents and children all coming together, in a classically Arab manner. For many of the children, it’s often the first time they’ve attended a horse race. It would be wonderful if we could inspire them to become jockeys or trainers.”
The Newbury races are, in particular, a flagship event for some of Europe’s best Purebred Arabian horses. Mr Al Sayegh added: “The race is a formidable showcase for Arabian horses, which are an iconic symbol of romance, pride and beauty. They are another powerful aspect of Arab heritage and culture which the crowds here can get to know.”
Newbury has had close links with Arab racing since the mid-80s, when the first Dubai International Arabian Race meetings were held there. Jockeys, trainers and all others involved view such meetings as “parties”, as they share the event with all the spectators.
It has all proved such a success, that the concept has spread abroad. Mr Al Sayegh explained: “The Dubai International Arabian Races now extend to many countries beyond the UK but the Newbury race day remains very special to Sheikh Hamdan.”
Julian Thick, the head of Newbury Racecourse said, “The event has moved around our calendar in recent years, but now that it has returned to its traditional successful slot on the fourth Sunday in July we are looking forward to building on the excitement that the fixture generates in the local area as a family event that should not be missed.”
Unlike Ascot, it might not provide a chance to see the Queen, but with the best aspects of Arab culture on display, there is no doubt that Newbury is rapidly turning into a must-visit for ordinary racegoers everywhere.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist, columnist, and broadcaster who specialises in French politics, Islamic affairs and the Arab world.