05:33 - Source: CNN
Qatar's racing ambition
CNN  — 

It’s already hosting the 2022 World Cup – and now Qatar has its eye on staging a world-class horse race as it seeks to expand an ever-growing sports portfolio.

The Gulf state boasts the Aspire Zone, complete with state-of-the-art stadia and specializing in sports medicine and education, while capital Doha has been chosen as the venue for the 2019 World Athletics Championships.

And the general manager of its racing club told CNN Winning Post he believes the day a major horse race is added to the list “is coming up soon.”

Qatar is the newest force in global horse racing.

Its involvement in racing’s traditional European heartland is continuing to grow, and the aim is to welcome the world’s finest horses, jockeys and trainers to the Middle East.

Multi-million dollar deals bankrolled by a country with a GDP of $183 billion have secured a string of prestigious sponsorship deals over recent years.

It agreed a long-term contract for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in June 2010 via QIPCO, the Qatar Investments and Projects Holding Company, which also sponsors the 35-race British Champions Series.

And from this year, Glorious Goodwood will be known as Qatar Goodwood following a lucrative, decade-long deal with the country’s Equestrian Foundation.

But the focus isn’t just on linking up with the best elsewhere – Qatar wants to put itself firmly in the spotlight.

“We have a vision, and we are looking for a bigger racetrack to accommodate more people,” Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club boss Sami Jassim Al Buenain said.

“It’s coming up soon – it’s not going to be that long, for sure.

“As soon as we get all the facilities, there will be an invitation for the top horses in the world to run here.

“The prestige is very good, and people from all over the world are here. Of course trainers and jockeys are looking for prize money, but everyone wants to win, to be at that level.”

Legendary jockey Frankie Dettori, now racing for Qatari Sheikh Joaan Al Thani, believes a huge enthusiasm for racing means the sky’s the limit.

“I’ve been working in this part of the world, in the Middle East, for the last 25 years. Horses, for them, are more or less everything,” he says. “They worship horses.

“We won’t have enough time to explain what ambitions they have here for horse racing. This is just the beginning.”

Rod Street, the CEO of Great British Racing, feels Qatar’s hefty overseas involvement has benefited everyone, saying it is “not just a financial transaction” and the Qataris “want to be associated with the best, the highest-quality racing.”

“They live and breathe it,” adds Racing Post editor Bruce Millington. “It’s not just faceless, wealthy guys writing checks – they really want to leave their imprint on these events.”

Millington says a template of success in racing abroad and then domestically exists in the example of Dubai, where Shiekh Mohammed Al Maktoum invested around the world before looking closer to home.

“He set to work establishing Dubai as a horse-racing base,” he explains. “The Dubai World Cup [taking place for the 20th time on March 28, with a prize pot of $30 million] and the Winter Carnival are testament to that time and effort.”

Qatar may have a population of only two million people, but its enormous wealth stems from its possession of the third richest natural gas reserves in the world.

Its rapid rise as a global player in horse racing has also succeeded in putting it on the map in a different way, as Sid McGrath, chief strategist of advertising agency Karmarama, points out.

“The emotional goodwill people feel towards sporting events transports itself to the way people feel about Qatar,” he explains.

“The whole concept of destination marketing and countries as brands is on the rise, and that’s important too.”

But not much is rising as fast as Qatar’s ranking in the horse-racing world. As Barry Lerman, of the Racing Club, puts it: “It’s booming.”