Olivier Peslier and Ekleel Athbah return after finishing in the prize money for the $1Million USD Al Mneefah Cup (Gr2PA) at the Saudi Cup Festival

© Debbie Burt

Though the UK’s new season doesn’t start until May 9th there was still plenty of good news overseas for the Arabian Racing Organisation (ARO) last week, with wins and valuable placings at the Saudi Cup Festival and in the UAE. With the world’s eyes on Riyadh, last year’s ARO leading horse, trainer and owner finished in the prize money in the Al Mneefah Cup (Gr2PA), whilst former three-time ARO leading lady rider Joanna Mason won and was second in two of the four races in the International Jockeys Challenge. Over the border in Abu Dhabi, James Owen’s Al Mahbooba continued her good run of form, securing another win in the Al Ain Marathon series.

Now in its fourth year, the eye wateringly valuable Saudi Cup Festival continues to develop the Friday undercard. The headline event, is the $1 million USD Al Mneefah Cup, run over 2100m on King Abdulaziz’s Turf track and upgraded to a Group 2PA this year. Newmarket trained Ekleel Athbah had bravely kept British hopes alive until the final bend, however after the race both her jockey, Olivier Peslier and trainer Phil Collington conceded that the trip at this level was too much of a stamina test, as she faded to sixth, but still netting connections $20,000 in prize money.

“She was well placed and broke as good as we’d hoped,” commented Collington afterwards. “She was a little bit free early on, but as soon as she got on heels she seemed to relax and travelled into the race well. Olivier said turning into the straight he thought she would still finish in the first three, as she found initially when he asked her, but by the end she was running on fumes.

“I think seeing as the other runs she’s had over this distance have been run so steadily, we now know that in a true run race she doesn’t stay.  Goodwood could be an option now, or the French Arabian Breeders Challenge Sprint, anything like that.”

Her owner-breeder Athbah Racing had three runners in the race, who had all run under ARO rules for Collington in the past. Best placed was the Shadwell bred Sultana, finishing third for her current trainer Elizabeth Bernard, whilst Dergham Athbah was seventh for Lucas Gaitan.

Former ARO leading lady rider [2016, 2017, 2018] Joanna Mason celebrates her win on Medbaas in the International Jockeys Challenge at the 2023 Saudi Cup

© Debbie Burt

Now riding as a professional, Mason had looked set for the honours in the International Jockey Challenge, in which seven male and seven female jockeys go head-to-head over four races, on locally trained horses. Riders included 2022 winner Caitlin Jones, as well as Frankie Dettori and ‘Magic Man’ Joao Moreira. Placing second in the first stage and winning the second, Mason went into the fourth stage ahead, however had to settle for overall third to Panamanian, Luis Saez, who has ridden over 2,600 winners worldwide.

“To win this has been amazing,” Mason said after her success on Medbaas. “I just got told simple instructions, jump out, get to the rail because he likes being in front and push on from the 600m, he’s all speed. That’s what he did and he went on again. 

“When the horse came to me, he pulled out that bit extra. I’m not experienced on the dirt but it rides beautifully, I’ve been on a first and a second, I really can’t complain!”

An amateur rider from as far back as 2006 who has also competed in jumps races, Mason has made a striking impression in a couple of full seasons as a professional, steering home 46 winners in Britain last year and has been clocking up many miles in the car during the current domestic all-weather season.

She also credits her time riding in the HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Lady Riders Series as a suitable preparation for the event saying: “Oh it definitely helped, having travelled the world riding on different tracks. It brought a whole new different experience to my riding, getting that opportunity as an amateur and being able to do that again in Saudi.”

Mason continued: “To even be picked to be out here, as much as representing the UK and the rest of the world and the females, to have a second and a winner, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It’s a dream come true, everyone has been so hospitable.”

Al Mahbooba and Pat Dobbs win the second leg of the Al Ain Marathon series

Photo supplied by Emirates Racing Authority

Her three ARO titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018 had primarily come through winners trained by Owen who was delighted for Mason saying: “It was lovely to see Jo doing so well on the Flat last year and for her to do well on the big stage in Saudi is great. She’s always had massive talent and people are noticing that now. We’re very proud of her and delighted to have been part of her early success, as she rode some nice winners for us.”

Owen’s Al Mahbooba who had recorded two UK wins last season for his Racing Club on the All Weather and shown improvement for a stamina test, was in top form again at Al Ain, stepping up from 3200m to 4100m to win by an even greater margin than before, of 10 and a quarter lengths for new trainer Doug Watson. Confirming her next assignment Owen said: “Al Mahbooba will go to the final leg of the Al Ain Marathon series on March 18th. Obviously it’s another step up in distance, to 5100m. It should suit, as she was strong through the line the other day and she loves that surface.

“She’s gone up a lot in the weights, so though she’ll be meeting many of the same horses, she’ll have quite a lot of them out of the handicap. Hopefully she’ll take some beating again.”

Meanwhile Ekleel Athbah is already on her way back to Newmarket with her flight landing at Stanstead this afternoon. Collington hopes that she will make her next start in the UK, along with his recent maiden winner, Thaydah Athbah, however he did not rule out another runner or two in Europe before the ARO season starts.

ARO CEO Genny Haynes commented: “It’s so good to see our horses running well overseas and a great advert for UK Arabian racing, we congratulate Phil, Athbah Racing and James Owen on their respective successes. We’re also delighted for Jo Mason who has still found time to ride Arabians since turning professional.”