Horse Racing: The Saudi Cup and Female Jockeys – A New Era?

By Dr Laura Donnellan, Lecturer in Law, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland
Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, a member of the House of Saud and the chairperson of the Jockey Club in Saudi Arabia, recently announced that the inaugural Saudi Cup will take place on 29 February 2020 at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh.
With prize money of $20 million, including $10 million for the winner, the race will be the world’s most expensive race (Bob Kieckhefer, ‘$20 Million Saudi Cup Will be World’s Richest Race’, Bloodhorse, 7 Aug. 2019, https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/235132/20-million-saudi-cup-will-be-worlds-richest-race).
The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia will arrange and pay for flights, accommodation, veterinary bills, farriers and fodder (ibid). There is no entry fee and no cost to run a horse in the race.
The race is not just noteworthy for the prize money and the creation of a turf track at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack, but the inclusion of female jockeys in the race in a country in which women have limited rights and are restricted from being involved publicly in sport is an interesting development.
Prince Bandar, in reference to participating jockeys, stated:
‘Men and women will be treated equally.  We are going through a transformation in the kingdom. We are learning, but we are opening up and there is a political will to go there.’
Quoted by Leslie Wilson Jr, ‘Female jockeys set to make history at $20m Saudi Cup’, Gulf News, 18 Sept. 2019, https://gulfnews.com/sport/horse-racing/female-jockeys-set-to-make-history-at-20m-saudi-cup-1.66500398).
Women have been welcome to attend equestrian events and women have participated in show jumping and endurance events; however, the Saudi Cup will be the first time female jockeys have been permitted to take part in horseracing in Saudi Arabia (‘Imagination Matches Purses on Saudi Cup Undercard’, Thoroughbred Daily News, 16 September 2019, https://www.thoroughbreddailynews.com/imagination-matches-purses-on-saudi-cup-undercard/).

The inclusion of female jockeys in Saudi Arabia comes almost fifty years after the British Jockey Club changed its rules and permitted female jockeys in 1972 (Joyce Kay, Wray Vamplew (eds) Encyclopedia of British Horseracing (Routledge 2005), at p.342).

Prior to that, the only race open to female jockeys was the Newmarket Town Plate, a race dating back to 1666, wherein Betty Tanner, through ‘a historical anomaly’ competed in 1923 (Martin Polley, Moving the Goalposts: A History of Sport and Society in Britain Since 1945 (Routledge 2002), at p.96). The Plate was open to all townspeople and thus women competed under this loophole.

The rules of National Hunt racing did not permit women to compete until 1976. It was not until the seminal case of Nagle v Feilden and Others that a female trainer was permitted to obtain a trainer’s licence in her own name and not under the name of the ‘head lad’ ([1966] 2 QB 633; [1966] 2 WLR. 1027).

The inclusion of female jockeys is in keeping with a number of recent reforms in Saudi Arabia.

In 2018, the ban on women driving was lifted and, in August 2019, it was announced that women could be granted passports and travel without the consent of a male relative.

However, such developments are not as progressive as first thought. A visiting professor at the London School of Economics notes:

‘throughout Islamic history, no other government has enforced such a pervasive guardianship system.’

Madawi al-Rasheed, ‘Saudi women can now travel without consent – but this progress is fragile’, The Guardian, 2 Aug. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/02/saudi-arabia-women-travel-consent-rights-feminist-movement.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia put forward the proposal of holding a male only Olympic Games. Prince Fahad bin Jalawi al-Saud, a consultant to the Saudi Olympic Committee explained that Saudi Arabian ‘society can be very conservative’ and, consequently:

‘it has a hard time accepting that women can compete in sports.’

Quoted by Gabriel Power, ‘Things that women in Saudi Arabia still can’t do’, The Week, 3 Sept. 2019, https://www.theweek.co.uk/60339/things-women-cant-do-in-saudi-arabia). Since 2017, women have been permitted to attend events at the national stadium; however, they are assigned to a female-only area.

Perhaps the inclusion of female jockeys has more to do with attracting ‘elite European turf runners’ (‘Imagination Matches Purses on Saudi Cup Undercard’ ibid). The racecourse in Riyadh is being refurbished to include a turf track as flat racing in Saudi Arabia typically takes place on a dirt track, thus:

‘the introduction of a turf track will open the market to British and European interests, who predominantly race on grass.’

Leslie Wilson Jr,  ‘Saudi Cup: Riyadh build country’s first turf track for $20m event’, Gulf News, 17 September 2019, https://gulfnews.com/sport/horse-racing/saudi-cup-riyadh-build-countrys-first-turf-track-for-20m-event-1.66478802.

By February 2020, the 14 competitors will be decided. The fact that the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia is paying all the costs for the competitors and their horses, has invested millions of dollars into the development of a turf track demonstrates that the Saudi Cup will be an illustrious race that will become a yearly feature. The organisers are hoping that the Saudi Cup will earn a reputation as a top-class race akin to the Melbourne Cup.

The inclusion of female jockeys is much welcomed and signals to the international racing community that Saudi Arabia is endeavouring to herald a new era for women’s rights.

However, it remains to be seen if any Saudi female jockeys will take part in the race or whether the female competitors will be European and/or American. There may not be any female competitors at all.

The Saudi Cup is limited to 14 competitors, who will have won in qualifying races or have been invited by the Jockey Club.

It will be interesting to see who will be invited and who will get through the qualifying races, and whether this initiative to encourage the participation of female jockeys in horse racing in Saudi Arabia will actually take off!

Dr Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Laura.Donnellan@ul.ie’