Discovering Traditional Sports - Horse Racing
Qatar has a long association with horses, from interdependence in the harsh desert environment to one that has developed over modern history into a multi-million dollar industry of breeding, training and competing in and hosting equestrian events, including horse racing.
Indeed, horse racing is an increasingly popular past-time in Qatar. From watching the races to vast investments in the industry, both at home and around the world, the sport is growing.
So, if horse racing is your thing or you just fancy watching the races for the thrill and excitement of it, then we have put together this guide to horse racing action in Qatar. But first, a little background information…
Qatar is a horse-loving nation with plenty of stables, stud farms and equestrian centres to prove it, plus they have top-class race courses and arenas that attract national, regional and international equestrians to compete in the competitions and tournaments held there. But, their love of horses is more deep-rooted than owning a raft of modern facilities and a growing horse racing industry:
- Thanks to Qatar's Bedouin heritage, modern Qataris have strong links with horses. Indeed, the country's nomadic ancestors, herding livestock across the desert plains, relied on horses for transport over long and arduous journeys, speed during tribal warfare, and racing for entertainment. Their social standing was also measured by the number of horses they owned, the daring races they won, and even the purity of their breeds. Bedouin horses were selectively bred for purity and to preserve and enhance specific characteristics such as speed, strength, endurance and intelligence, integral to the horses' and tribes' survival. These purebred horses, more commonly known as Arabian horses, developed to endure and excel as war horses and to cope with the harsh desert environment. These qualities also produced exceptional racing horses.
- In recent history (1893), while the peninsula was at war with the Ottomans, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani fought a decisive battle, eventually leading to Qatar's independence. That battle was fought and won with the Arabian horse, developed over hundreds of years by Bedouins for such conflicts.
- Further afield, the Arabian horse, chosen for its specific qualities, was used for breeding the first Thoroughbred horses - bred specifically for racing in the 17th century. In fact, 93% of current recorded Thoroughbreds have Arabian blood.
Today, the purebred-Arabian horse is one of today's most valued horses worldwide - without the value Bedouins bestowed on their horses, the breed may never have been. Proud of their history with Arabian horses, modern Qataris are keen to honour their ancestors and their horsemanship and to pass on their heritage and traditions to future generations. As a result, the country has adopted breeding, training and educational programmes to continue the work of their forefathers. In addition, racing, showing and eventing horses, Arabian and Thoroughbreds, has become a national pastime.
Horse Racing History
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 some Thoroughbreds were owned and raced by locals.
Early race tracks in Qatar were quite basic, with just four race days per season. However, facilities rapidly improved as the 'official' sport took off. Today, approximately 60 fixtures with some 400 races occur between October to May each year, generally held at the ultra-modern Al Rayyan and Al Uqda race courses.
While breeding purebred Arabians remains a country-wide passion, there is an increasing rise in the number of Thoroughbreds owned and produced by Qataris. The country is keen to escalate its presence in international Thoroughbred racing and, in doing so, increase its global profile in the industry. So, while there are still numerous fixtures for locally bred horses, Thoroughbred racing dominates at the international events and festivals held at Al Rayyan and Al Uqda.
Both Qatar's local and international horse races annually boast prize money in the millions. Its premier international horse race meeting, the HH Emir's Sword Festival, runs races for purebred Arabians and Thoroughbreds and has a prize purse of over $4 million (USD), attracting competitors from across the global horse racing scene.
So, where can you get involved in the action…
Horse Racing in Qatar
Two of the most popular types of racing in Qatar are flat and endurance racing.
Flat races are run, as the name suggests, over flat surfaces (turf, artificial all-weather surfaces, sand or mud) with no jumps, from 400 metres up to 4 kilometres (400 yards to 2 miles). Qatar holds flat races for Thoroughbreds, Arabians and Non-Thoroughbreds.
Endurance races are generally held over distances of 25 to 160 kilometres (15 to 100 miles) over natural terrain. The Arabian breed typically dominates these races due to their natural stamina and endurance.
Each season, flat races in Qatar are held at the Al Rayyan Park racecourse in Doha or the new Al Uqda Complex to the north of the country just outside Al Khor.
Endurance races are generally held south of the country near Sealine Beach across desert terrain.
Flat Racing at Al Rayyan Park and Al Uqda Complex
Head to the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club (QREC) racecourses in Al Rayyan and Al Khor to watch horse racing. The racing season is from October to May, and people worldwide are invited to attend and compete in national and international events, festivals, meetings, shows and auctions. Generally, race meetings are held throughout the season on Thursdays and Wednesdays, though Saturday races are also quite common. Most races are held at the Al Rayyan Park course, but the new facilities at the Al Uqda Complex are rapidly gaining traction. Total prize money for competitors across the season is generally over $10 million (USD).
Al Rayyan Park
Al Rayyan, inaugurated in 2001 and located in Doha on Furousiya Street, Ar Rayyan, has earned a reputation as an exciting venue with sand and turf tracks, a great atmosphere, and opportunities to get close to the horses and riders. The course Grandstand can host up to 1,400 spectators and provides a fantastic close-up view of all the action. Luxury, air-conditioned corporate boxes are available to hire. So, for those who would like a bird's eye view across the tracks, comfortable seating and attentive service, these private suites are worth booking. Outside is a hospitality area, food outlets, and a kids' play area - so families and spectators of all ages can enjoy the racecourse.
Al Uqda Complex
New to Qatar's racing scene in 2020, Al Uqda Complex is located just outside the northern town of Al Khor. The equestrian complex was built to enhance Qatar's horse racing industry and provide expanded nationwide facilities and alternative options to out-of-city horse owners requiring stabling and training facilities. Compared to Al Rayyan's enclosed city site, the complex's desert location makes future expansion possible. The new complex already accommodates all weather and grass race tracks, stables for over 400 animals, numerous training and exercise facilities, a farrier, a veterinary clinic, and an arena for showing, eventing and riding school training. Visitors can find hospitality amenities on site, various food outlets and a children's play area. In the future, the complex will also house a grandstand.
Entrance and programmes are free at Al Rayyan Park and Al Uqda Complex. And there are hotels, restaurants and attractions, all within easy reach of both, including the new FIFA 2022 World Cup stadiums Al Khalifa Stadium and Al Khor Stadium.
For more information on Qatar’s Al Rayyan racecourse or the Al Uqda Complex, race calendar and facilities, visit the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club website, or contact the club directly:
Endurance Racing at Sealine
Endurance racing is one of the fastest-growing international equestrian events. Qatar's purebred Arabian horses are perfectly developed for the sport. Having been born and bred to cope with the harsh desert terrain, Arabian horses have the stamina and resilience required for gruelling endurance races.
Qatar's Al Shaqab Endurance Team regularly trains in the desert to ensure they and the horses are prepared for events throughout the year. They compete at home and in races worldwide, including the FEI World Championships. When competing at home, the team participates in races at the Qatar Endurance Village in Mesaieed, near Sealine Beach. All races are open and free for the public to attend.
Usually, races in Qatar are held on Saturdays and generally start in the late afternoon and evening. Visitors attending the races can expect a thrilling ride - spectators in SUVs can follow the riders throughout the race on tracks alongside the course. Bumping over rough terrain in pursuit of the leading horses is an exhilarating experience and one you are not likely to forget in a hurry. After all the excitement, hospitality tents, food outlets and washrooms can be found around the village hub.
For more information about the Al Shaqab complex, its endurance event calendar and facilities, visit the Al Shaqab website or contact them directly:
- Contact Details:
- Tel: +974 4454 1992
- Email: [email protected]
- Location: Al Shaqab Street, Gate 9 - Education City, Doha
Al Shaqab Equestrian Centre
Al Shaqab Equestrian Centre is the brainchild of the former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The centre was established to preserve and sustain the Arabian horse breed, to train riders and horses for endurance races, and to educate people in horsemanship and equestrianism. The centre was built, in 1992, on the site of Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani's pivotal battle against the Ottomans as an ode to the country's horse-riding warrior ancestors who won the war.
Today, Al Shaqab's world-class facilities include indoor and outdoor arenas, stables for dressage, show jumping and endurance horses, stables for the Emir's horses, a breeding centre, exercise and fitness centres, a veterinary clinic and, for two-legged visitors, a visitor/education centre and a clubhouse. The centre stables, breeds and trains horses, hosts numerous national and international championships and competitions, horse auctions and other equestrian events, and provides courses and programmes to teach equestrianism and hosts riding academies for the general public, from novice to competition level.
So, even if you miss the races, you can always pop into Al Shaqab for a tour of the facilities, a riding lesson, horse auctions or, if you're lucky enough, one of their equestrian events, such as show jumping or dressage.
Whatever your desire, Qatar, thanks to its age-old bond with horses, has plenty to offer!
Main image: Moment of Perception/Shutterstock.com
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