The Rise of Horse Racing in Qatar
Whether you are living in Qatar, travelling through, or visiting for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, there are plenty of opportunities to experience the country’s vibrant horse racing scene. Qatar has a long association with horses and a fervent desire to be a first-class horse racing nation. So, equestrian events and activities run throughout most of the year. Join the throng of Qataris at the Al Rayyan racecourse on one of Qatar’s biggest race days, the HH Amir Sword. Take a visit to the stunningly modern Al Shaqab Horse Racing Academy and learn about equestrian life. Or canter over to the Al Samriya Riding School and have a riding lesson. Whatever your preference, saddle up and don’t miss the chance to sample all that Qatar has to offer.
Horse racing is an increasingly popular past-time in Qatar. From watching the races to vast investments in breeding, training and racing horses, both at home and around the world, the sport is growing. But, where did it all begin and what are Qatar hoping to achieve?
Horse racing is one of the world’s oldest and favourite sporting events. Historically, horse racing was a pastime for the aristocracy, or for those rich and powerful enough to own racing animals. Today, major racing events are watched by millions of people worldwide. It is a multi-million dollar industry. One that Qatar is increasing its involvement in at a rapid pace.
In Qatar, breeding and racing Arabian horses is deep-rooted in tradition. The Arabian horse is a prized possession with the nation's culture and identity closely linked to the breed. Throughout history Arabian horses have played an important role in Qatari life. Not only were these horses vital to the daily lives of Qatari ancestors, the Bedouins, but they were instrumental in winning the battles against the Ottomans - battles that eventually secured Qatar’s independence.
The Bedouins selectively bred Arabian horses for their speed and stamina. Those horses were bred to endure and excel as war horses and to cope with the harsh desert environment, but those qualities also produced exceptional racing horses. Indeed, chosen for its specific qualities, the Arabian horse was used in the breeding of the first Thoroughbred horses.
For centuries competitive horse races, between local Bedouin tribes, were held for prestige, renown and prizes. While local horse racing remains popular, Qatar’s appetite for international horse racing has grown rapidly. Over the last few decades, Thoroughbred racing has become as important to the nation as rearing purebred Arabians. Indeed, championed by the Qatari Royal family, Qatar has become an important player in this global sport. Their success at international races; their world-class breeding and training facilities; their sponsorship of some of the most prestigious racing events; and, the internationally renowned HH Amir Sword Cup held in Doha, have all helped propel them on to the international racing scene.
For a nation culturally tied to the world’s most recognised breeds of horse, the Arabian, it seems only fitting that they continue to mold the region’s history through horse racing.
Read all about the Arabian Horse, its history and prowess in this Arabian Horses article.
If you want to ride horses in Qatar, watch the races, or visit one of Qatar’s stud farms or racing academies, take a look at this Horsing Around in Qatar section of the website.
The Evolution of Horse Racing
It is hard to imagine what our ancestors would think of the horse and its place in modern times. It is believed that wild horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of central Asia around 5000BC, but they were only bred for their meat and their milk. It took another 1000-2000 years before man realised that horses could be used for carrying people, transportation and racing!
Horse racing probably took place wherever man rode horses and took up a challenge. However, the first recorded racing was shown to be in Greece – chariot racing. Similar records show that horse racing formed a part of the entertainment enjoyed by the Romans.
The development of horse racing we know and love today has taken place over time, mainly in Europe, and significantly in England. Often referred to as the ‘Sport of Kings’, it was a pastime for the aristocracy, the rich and famous. For instance, in England, Richard the Lionheart sponsored races, as did James I; Henry VIII and Charles I owned stud farms. In France, Louis XIV and Louis XVI were involved in the formation of horse racing. Organised racing in America (in New York) was established by a colonel in the British army. But it was England’s King Charles II, who at the end of the 17th Century and with the breeding of Thoroughbred horses, helped establish the professional sport of horse racing.
The Thoroughbred horse was created specifically for racing in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Three oriental group stallions, known as the foundation sires, were mated with English mares to create the distinctive features of Thoroughbreds.
The foundation shires were Arabian, Turk and Barb (or Berber) horses. They brought specific qualities to mix with the large, strong English mares:
- Arabian horses were well known for their intelligence, high spirit, stamina and strong bones.
- Turks were tall, strong, tough horses known for their endurance and long-distance capabilities.
- Barb horses from North Africa were agile and known for their fiery temper, hardiness and agility.
Today’s Thoroughbred is considered to be the fastest of horses, powered by a tall, lean muscular body with a large heart, long legs and a deep chest. It is not only elegant and graceful but has characteristics of strength, stamina, agility, and intelligence that make it the ideal racing horse.
Thoroughbreds, though originating in England, are sold around the world. However, despite global sales, the status of “Thoroughbred” is jealously guarded. A horse can only be considered a Thoroughbred if its bloodline is fully documented, and can be traced back, preferably, to the foundation sires.
In Qatar, breeding Thoroughbreds is big business. While breeding purebred Arabians remains a country-wide passion, there is an increasing rise in the number of Thoroughbreds owned and bred by Qataris. The country is keen to escalate their presence in international Thoroughbred racing and, in doing so, increase their global profile. It is estimated that half of the racing horses in Qatar are now Thoroughbreds.
For an insight of what it takes to breed and train a racehorse, read our Raising Racehorses article.
Qatar - An International Racing Hub
Qatar has the best Arabian horses in the world and they are keen to honour their association with the Arabian horse by continuing to rear, race and show purebred Arabians, and to teach future generations to appreciate the legacy they have been gifted. But, as with everything in this small nation, they are keen, not only to hold on to their roots and culture but to forge their own path in the modern world.
Qatar’s overarching aim is to cultivate the future of their people; to do this, they need to have global recognition and reach. In the last few decades they have begun to reach out to the world through sport. By developing and establishing itself as a world-class sports hub, Qatar aims to attract the world to its doors. One of the world’s biggest sporting events, the FIFA World Cup 2022 is just one sporting event that Qatar has secured to propel itself on to the global stage and to bring people flocking to the region. Many other sporting events are being developed to achieve the same results, including international Thoroughbred horse racing.
Although Qataris have been racing and showing Arabian horses for centuries, it was not until 1975 that the sport was officially established in Qatar. Races were mainly for Arabian horses, though a small number of Thoroughbreds were also owned and raced by locals.
Early race tracks were quite basic, but facilities rapidly improved over the next 30 years as the ‘official’ sport took off. Today, Qatar’s races are held at the ultra-modern Al Rayyan race course. The race course grounds comprise a 1400 seating grandstand, floodlights, air conditioned stables, horse swimming pool, training track, veterinary hospital, farrier facility and even a dedicated children’s play area.
In the early days there were just 4 race days. This increased over the years and now there are approximately 60 fixtures with some 400 races taking place between October to May each year! While there are still numerous fixtures for local bred horses, Thoroughbred racing dominates. International events and festivals are held at the race course attracting competitors from across the global horse racing scene.
Annually, both Qatar’s local and international horse races boast total prize money of $11,000,000 (USD)*. Its premier international horse race meeting, the HH Emir’s Sword Festival, runs races for both Purebred Arabians and Thoroughbreds and has a prize purse of $3.5 million (USD)*. It’s no wonder the festival attracts international competitors to its tracks. This event, by the way, boasts free entry for all!
For Qatari’s, the emphasis of the sport is “the horse”. There is no gambling or alcoholic drink at the race course, people are there for the event and the horses. So when you come to the race course you can expect a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere where families and spectators can enjoy the Sport of Kings.
Galloping Towards the Future
There is currently only one racecourse in Qatar. However, at the rate the sport is developing, don’t be surprised if another racetrack, to rival some of the best international tracks, pops up soon.
There is no doubt that the horse racing industry is developing rapidly in Qatar. Qatar Racing & Equestrian Club currently states that, “Our ambition is to keep improving the quality of the horses we race and to compete against the very best in the world, all over the world”. And, in truth, in a relatively short time, around 50 years, Qatar has become a major force in international horse racing.
Internationally, the philosophy is in investment, ownership and sponsorship to achieve this ambition. Qatar owns international Thoroughbreds; they have established breeding bases in France and the UK; and, they are sponsors of some of horse racing's most prestigious annual events, including the five-day Qatar Goodwood Festival held in the United Kingdom and the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe held in France. This type of international investment and partnership can only have a positive knock-on effect for domestic breeding, training and racing.
At home, the sport has Royal patronage and support. Appropriate governing bodies are being put in place. Large investments have been made within the industry. The number of owners in Qatar is steadily increasing, and there are over a dozen stud farms producing scores of Thoroughbreds each year. And, the range of facilities for breeding, training and developing horsemanship is ever increasing.
Qatar is home to the following facilities:
- The Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club that incorporates the Al Rayyan racecourse and which is responsible for things such as horse registry and stud books.
- The Al Shaqab Horse Racing Academy, which is committed to preserving Qatar’s heritage; promoting the Arabian horse; setting the highest standards in horse welfare breeding, equine education and research; and, engaging the local community.
- The Al Samriya Riding School, which provides a range of horse riding experiences and training for adults and children.
- The Al Shahania Stud with over 200 horses and offices, which accommodate the Qatar based breeding, showing and racing headquarters for global bloodstock operations.
- Qatar Racing, which encompasses horse investment, ownership, breeding, training and welfare on an international basis.
Horse racing in Qatar is thriving and is a growing part of its future. While jealously maintaining the Arabian horse bloodlines, Thoroughbred horses and racing are now a large part of Qatar's racing scene. International and domestic investments will not only drive the sport forward, but will also help to drive the Qatari economy and its standing in the world to a more prominent and secure future.
For more information on the costs and rewards of horse racing and Qatar’s domestic and international investments, check out this article - Raising Racehorses - The Costs and Rewards.
Caring for the Arabian horse, one of the oldest, most respected and loved breeds in the world, plays an essential role in preserving Qatar's cultural heritage.
Learn about the costs associated with raising a racehorse, why the benefits far outweigh the costs, and how Qatar is capitalising on the market.
If you want to see and ride some of the most beautiful horses in the world, there are plenty of places in Qatar waiting to welcome you.