(CNN)Saudi Arabia is to stage the richest horse race in history next year with a $20 million prize pot up for grabs in the latest venture to attract world-class sporting events to the nation.
The new Saudi Cup will comfortably eclipse horse racing’s previous richest individual race, the Pegasus World Cup, which peaked at a purse of $16 million in 2018 before dropping back behind the $12M Dubai World Cup.
The race will be free to enter and will be contested by a maximum of 14 horses with the winner pocketing $10 million, the second receiving $3.5 million and the remaining purse handed out to the rest of the field.
The Saudi Cup will take place at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh on February 29 — between the Pegasus and the Dubai World Cup — and will be contested on dirt over nine furlongs (1,800 meters).
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The announcement comes just days after the country revealed plans to host a Formula 1 grand prix as soon as the 2021 season.
“The introduction of the Saudi Cup as an international race is without doubt the most significant event in the history of horse racing in Saudi Arabia, and demonstrates our resolve to develop this great sport in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and also our ambition to become a leading player on horse racing’s world stage,” said Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal at the launch event Wednesday night in Saratoga, New York State.
“We look forward to welcoming international horsemen and women, the media, racing enthusiasts and the public to Riyadh in 2020.”
Veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori said in a statement announcing the race: “I’ve been going to King Abdulaziz Racetrack ever since it opened. Of all the dirt tracks I’ve ridden, it’s the one I like best, as you can win from the front, and you can win from behind — it’s a fair track.”
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Sport is playing an increasing part in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to modernize Saudi Arabia, relax the conservative social code and improve in its controversial global image.
As well as a possible F1 race, the nation also hosted the European Tour’s Saudi International golf tournament in January, with then world No.1 Justin Rose heading up the field. Rose’s fellow Briton Paul Casey was one of the few players to publicly turn down an opportunity to play in the event.
At the time he told reporters: “There were a lot of questions. Do I want to go to Saudi? That was the main question. There are a lot of places in the world that I have played and continue to go to which you could question….some human rights violations that governments have committed…I thought I’d sit this one out.”
An proposed exhibition tennis match between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was scheduled for last December but later canceled because of injury to the Spaniard.
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Khan defends Jeddah boxing bout
Also in January, Juventus beat AC Milan 1-0 in the Italian Super Cup in Jeddah, the same city which played host to British boxer Amir Khan’s lucrative fight against Billy Dib.
Khan was forced to defend his decision to fight in Saudi Arabia for a reported $8.5 million after Amnesty International described the kingdom’s human rights record as “abysmal,” while warning of the ruling party overseeing a “sweeping crackdown against its critics.”
The British fighter told reporters: “Maybe now they are changing to make it that new place where people can enjoy themselves and it’s fair for women. I think they’re trying to change now.”
‘Drop in the ocean’
The Saudi Arabian government last week announced a new ruling whereby women can finally hold passports and travel abroad with the consent of a male guardian as part of an apparent policy shift over his notoriously stringent restrictions towards women.
Adam Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, said the ongoing changes in women’s right as well as the international sporting expansion were intertwined.
Of the Saudi Cup announcement, he told CNN: “I feel like there’s new announcements every other day in Saudi Arabia and it’s not just sport but larger entertainment – concerts, movie theaters – and it’s in addition to that broader women’s right reforms that they’re undertaking right now.
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“It’s meant to present the image of Saudi Arabia being a reforming, modernizing society in order to make the idea of foreign investment more palatable and change the image of investors’ minds.
“As for $20m for a horse race, that’s a drop in the ocean – it’s nothing. They’re creating the idea that Saudi Arabia is not dissimilar to the UAE.”
The announcement of the world’s newest and richest race comes just 10 months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with a United Nations report claiming there was “sufficient credible evidence” that the crown prince bore responsibility for the killing.
The Washington Post columnist died after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2018 with Saudi officials — after initial denials — claiming it was the work of rogue operators.
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Asked whether the sporting push was a reaction to the Khashoggi murder and a need for a better global image, Coogle added: “It’s hard to show causality on that as Saudi Arabia was doing that before Khashoggi. With the negative attention around his killing, the only way to tackle that is to do bigger and bolder events with big reforms. They were doing stuff like this before but it’s possible that sped it up.”