By Linda White
Today, Arabian horses are racing on five continents. Arabians bred in the United States are contributing to Arabian race breeding programs all over the world. Purses at major Arabian horse races offer hundreds of thousands of dollars, rivalling those of famous Thoroughbred races. Support for Arabian racing continues in the United States, but ironically, funding and participation are coming increasingly from the place where the breed originated: the Middle East.
Some Middle Eastern and European Arabian breeders keep racing stock over here. Among the horses Sharon Clark manages at her Rigbie Farm, in Darlington, Maryland, is 2012 Darley Horse of the Year Valiant Boy SBFAR, bred by HH Shaikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed, owned by Guy Neivens, and managed by Clark. Bin Zayed maintains Arabian racing bloodstock he races in the U.S. at Rigbie.
Also closer to home, on June 14, 2014 the Emirates Equestrian Federation, sponsored by the President of the United Arab Emirates, will largely underwrite another Grade 1 stakes race at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Also supporting efforts is the United States’ Arabian Racing Cup, which staged its inaugural championship races in 1983. Today, the Cup’s six races draw the country’s top Arabian speedsters, competing for over $400,000. The annual Arabian Racing Cup weekend, with all its social gatherings, has become one of the U.S.’s most popular Arabian racing events. Arabians are racing at more U.S. tracks large and small. There are fatter purses, more publicity and higher visibility, thereby increasing public awareness of Arabian racing and significantly upping its appeal to breeders and new investors.
Multiple Darley Award-winning race trainer and breeder Dianne Waldron used to compete with Arabians in endurance. She acquired EI Talquahjamasna, who would become her foundation broodmare, in 1983. “She had been an endurance pack horse, so she only knew how to follow, but with me, she soon discovered her real calling: to lead the pack!” Waldron laughs. “She ran successfully, and gave me daughters who produced champions and stakes winners.” Waldron soon found herself and horses she bred at the forefront as Arabian racing grew into the international, high-stakes sport it is today.
“In the old days, we ran at Ocala Breeders Sales for $500 purses,” Waldron remembers. “It cost $50 to enter, and the winner won $250. But we ran, we filled four or five races every Sunday, and we had fun! In Arabian racing you make friends with your competition - friendships that last and last.
“The purses were cheap back then, but the industry grew steadily, in large part because of a handful of passionate people who loved the sport. That passion has become worldwide. Arabian racing is thriving internationally, but the flip side is that since the rest of the world noticed our Arabians, our numbers have gone down in this country because we have sold so many abroad. I tell people that the time to become involved is now, before the price of good racing stock is driven higher and higher because the supply can’t meet the demand.”
And while the greatest incentive for getting into racing may be the excitement, as well as expectation of financial gain, the investment dollar ratio is tempting, because those rich purses can be won by an Arabian race horse that cost roughly 1/16 of what a Thoroughbred of similar caliber would cost. The excitement is unrivaled, no matter the breed, and Arabian racing enthusiasts find that they, too appreciate the objectivity of racing: winning is based on who gets to the finish line first. Period. The winner is not selected on the basis of somebody’s opinion.
Waldron agrees that objectivity is one of racing’s greatest appeals. “The race track is still the great equalizer,” she states. “It’s a place where a one-horse owner and a king both have a shot at the same thrill.”
Support from Europe and the Middle East helps sustain Arabian races in many countries - but where do those hefty purses at United States tracks come from? Kathy Smoke, President of the Arabian Jockey Club since 2007, explains. “Delaware Park, for one, has purse monies funded through slot machines and gaming at the track’s casino. Tracks in other states get purse monies from funds that state’s legislature allocates for horse racing; slot machines also help fund horse racing in many states. And because now we’re racing at some of the U.S.’s finest Thoroughbred tracks, on the same days as big Thoroughbred races, our stature has risen steadily in their eyes.”
Alan Kirshner and Deborah Mihaloff, have been breeders and supporters of Arabian racing for over 35 years. The couple’s Cre Run Farms has been home to generations of Darley Award and Grade 1 stakes winners: individuals who have won on the world’s foremost tracks. Despite their elite bloodstock and continued success on the track, one of Alan and Deb’s greatest joys lies in the happy, productive lives that follow their horses’ racing careers. The winners of the 2014 Biltmore 100 [mile] and Biltmore 50 [mile] endurance races are two recent individuals Cre Run has bred, raced, retired and re-directed into new careers.
Longtime Northern California Arabian race breeder Helen Shelly points out the “perception is reality” impact of Arabians’ enjoying productive lives when their racing days are over. “Thoroughbred racing has gotten a black eye because the general public has become aware of what happens to many Thoroughbreds when their racing lives end,” Shelly points out. “A huge positive for Arabian racing is that our horses do have careers after they race. Some go into breeding programs, but many become excellent pleasure, endurance or trail horses. A perfect example is Take A Break, a gelding my husband, Warren and I purchased and raced, mostly at Los Alamitos, to help fill races. After we retired him from the track, Take A Break went on to win the 2013 Tevis Cup.” [Note: the 100-mile Tevis Cup is North America’s premiere endurance race.]
Historic Delaware Park Racetrack, in Wilmington, Del., has long been a linchpin of Arabian racing. “We race 12 to 15 horses each year, and travel all over the world, but our mainstay is Delaware Park,” explains Deb Mihaloff. Lynn Ashby, who trains runners for Kirshner and Mihaloff and others, has had notable success at Delaware Park in her 30-year career. She and her husband, Mark are now located in Middletown, 12 miles from Delaware Park. A multiple winner of the Darley Award for Leading Trainer, Ashby has developed winners for the late King Hassan of Morocco and other internationally esteemed race breeders and enthusiasts. In her world travels, she has met people who are as passionate about Arabian racing as she is.
Arabian racing in the U.S. attracted little notice until 1972, when Texas Arabian race breeders Boots and Robbie Kubela took their stallion Kontiki, a winning race horse, to the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show, where he became the 1972 Scottsdale Rreserve Champion Stallion. That got the Arabian show horse crowd’s attention. Kontiki’s daughters’ profound influence remains to this day. Lynn Ashby was friends with Arabian racing pioneers George Champie and Robbie Kubela, who married California breeder John Rogers after her husband Boots’ death. [Note: John Rogers imported influential sire Serafix from England.]
“Tiki Sera Ku, a Kontiki/Serafix cross, was probably the first Arabian bred in this country and sold to the Middle East,” Ashby recalls. “There are lots of the Kontikis over there now. It’s amazing, how things have come full circle.”
Ashby also trained Burning Sand, who crosses exceptionally well with Kontiki-bred mares. On May 9, 2009 a TVG horse racing announcer commented that Burning Sand was ". . . the most dominant sire in all horse racing,” adding that Burning Sand had by far the best percentages of any racing sire, including Thoroughbreds.
We have frequently mentioned “Darley Awards”; Why? Well, for 27 years the Darley Awards has honored the most outstanding horses, jockeys, owners, trainers and breeders in Arabian racing. This year’s gala was held, appropriately enough, in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, site of the Academy Awards. The increasingly international flavor continued, with France garnering four titles, and two of the most coveted honors the 2013 Shaikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan Darley Award for Arabian Racing in the USA, and the HH Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak Darley Award. Visit www.arabianracing.org for more information.
Arabian racing has come of age. Speed and stamina were the gifts three desert Arabian stallions: the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb and the Beyerly Turk, brought to the Thoroughbred breed they founded. How ironic it is that nearly 300 years later, the purebred Arabian is a tour de force on the racetracks of the world. It is amazing, how things have come full circle.
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