putting the Saudi Cup in context

(This was originally published February 11, 2020 at thorocap.com. With that site offline, that link points to the copy on archive.org. i’m republishing it here both in case anything happens to this record on archive.org, and because i’d prefer it to also be readable without referring to my deadname.)


Last week, horse racing buzzed over the probables for the richest Thoroughbred race in history: the Saudi Cup, scheduled for February 29, 2020 at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Far fewer people in horse racing were talking about another piece of news related to the country: a report Amnesty International released on February 6 about Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), an institution at the heart of its continued repression of dissidents and activists.  It was originally set up in 2008 as a court to try people accused of terrorism-related crimes, but starting in 2011 it began to hear cases in which the defendants were accused of criticizing the government, dissenting against its policies, or spreading religious faith not strictly in line with the government’s.

Though Amnesty International’s report about the human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia is the most recent one, it is far from the only one.  Similar concerns have also been raised by the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Ben Emmerson, serving in his capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.  All of these organizations have raised legitimate and /credible concerns about the SCC specifically, and Saudi repression of those who disagree with the government more broadly.

Some may say, “stick to sports!”, or wonder what these issues have to do with a horse race. The question matters given the timing of the Saudi Cup’s inauguration and the framing of the event.

The Saudi Cup is no one-off, and horse racing is not alone among sports in having to reckon with a marquee event.  Though this is the first effort made at such a grand scope to get racehorses worldwide to point toward a marquee race day in the Kingdom, it is far from the only event to lure international sports stars to Saudi Arabia in recent years. 

In December Anthony Joshua defeated Andy Ruiz, Jr. to win the major boxing heavyweight belts; the fight happened in Diriyah, outside of Riyadh.  Last month the Dakar Rally, one of the world’s top marathon off-road races, was contested for the first time in Saudi Arabia; plans are in place to host the rally in Saudi Arabia for at least five years.  In 2019 the European Tour, the top-level golf tour in Europe, began to contest the Saudi International tournament; the 2020 edition wrapped up February 2.

The official justification for this explosion in major sporting events in Saudi Arabia ties into Vision 2030, the plan for the country’s social and economic future that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced in 2016.  According to a December 6, 2019 BBC article HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, chairman of the General Sports Authority, stated to BBC sports editor Dan Roan that the rise in international sporting events is intended to get Saudi citizens more physically active.  And, tying back to the text of Vision 2030, world-class sporting events tie directly to the stated goal for Saudi Arabia to “be among the leaders in selected sports regionally and globally.”

On the surface, the narrative fits, but taking that argument at face value is shallow.  As political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power”, states in his 1990 Foreign Policy article of the same name, “A state may achieve the outcomes it prefers in world politics because other states want to follow it or have agreed to a situation that produces such effects.”  Nye continues, “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes…If it can establish international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to change.”  In other words, instead of using or threatening force to get its way, a country can use other leverage to get its way. Ways to get that leverage include “cultural and ideological attraction”.

The shining visions of culture, sport, technology, diversified energy, and government transparency listed in Saudi Arabia’s publicly released and oft-cited “Vision 2030” are a way of exerting soft power, of gaining respect on the world stage through the power of attraction instead of a show of force.  Sports are another common way of trying to leverage soft power for, both to gain global standing as well as to paper over political repression with a grand spectacle of something broadly beloved and seemingly apolitical — it’s just a game, right? But, sports have political context, too.

August 7, 2019, at a press conference in Saratoga, the Saudi Cup was unveiled to the horse racing world.  Prince Bandar Khalid al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, stated: “We look forward to welcoming international horsemen and women, the media, racing enthusiasts, and the public to Riyadh in 2020.”

Prince Bandar’s specific wording about the opportunities the Saudi Cup will provide to “horsemen and women” sounds like several already-revealed pages from the Vision 2030 public relations playbook.  Consider the efforts to get a Saudi female driver in the 2021 Dakar Rally.  The WWE, who started doing shows in 2014 featuring “males only”, finally had its first women’s wrestling match last October in Riyadh, between Natalya and Lacey Evans.

But, the broader picture of women’s standing in Saudi Arabia is far more complicated than these sports highlights.

As noted on page 14 of this month’s Amnesty International report, the country has made some actual reforms in recent years. Women began receiving driver’s licenses in June 2018.  The next year saw the loosening of some of the restrictions of the guardianship system, a framework of laws and customs which has required women to depend on men’s permission in legal, civic, and even personal matters. A guardianship system still exists, but royal decrees were made in 2019 to allow women to get passports; travel abroad; register marriages, divorces, and children; and obtain family documents without explicit male approval.

Those are undeniably improvements to Saudi Arabia’s legal treatment of women.  However, according to activists who spoke to Human Rights Watch, Saudi authorities commanded people not to speak out in 2017 when they announced plans to end the driving ban.  In May 2018, the month before women began to get driver’s licenses in Saudi Arabia, there was a round of arrests of Saudi women’s rights activists.  Some of them remain in custody, due to violations of vague antiterrorism laws. Their enumerated offenses include speaking to international journalists.

Prince Bandar’s pronouncement that he looks forward to welcoming the media also rings hollow given how the Kingdom has treated journalists who do not walk the government’s line.

Anyone who has read the news in the last year and a half knows the name Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. Though he was not a lifelong dissident, during his journalistic career in Saudi Arabia he suffered consequences for doing things people in a country with a more free press may take for granted being able to do: publishing critiques of the government, and leading a news station that was taken off the air for interviewing an opposition leader.  He stated publicly that he exiled himself from the country in order to speak more freely about his concerns related to the government. In the final year of his life he wrote a column for the Washington Post; among its topics was the tight control Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman maintained over the media.  He walked into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018 to get papers he needed for his upcoming marriage.  Khashoggi never walked out of that embassy.

Upon investigation Agnes Callamard, acting as the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings, concluded that Khashoggi’s killing was an extrajudicial killing for which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.  As outlined in a report released on June 19, 2019 Callamard found, among a long list of concerning circumstances around his death, significant deficiencies in both the investigation of Khashoggi’s death and the trial of 11 people accused of carrying out his killing.  Wrote Callamard, “The trial is held behind closed doors; the identity of those charged has not been released nor is the identity of those facing the death penalty. At the time of writing, at least one of those identified as responsible for the planning and organizing of the execution of Mr. Khashoggi has not been charged.”

One journalist being the target of government repression is one too many, but Jamal Khashoggi is not the only one.  Saudi Arabia is aware that its detention of journalists tarnishes its reputation on the world stage, to the extent that it allowed a delegation from international press freedom organization Reporters without Borders to meet with government ministers in July 2019.  The ministers expressed dissatisfaction that the organization ranked Saudi Arabia so low on its press freedom index, but made no commitment to release 30 journalists that the organization alleged were detained.  In its 2019 survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that at least 26 journalists were held in captivity, including 18 for whom the charges had not been disclosed.

At its heart, this is why horse racing needs to be concerned. Anyone who follows the sport will have to acknowledge the Saudi Cup is happening, since the best horses in the world are racing there and the results will impact the season going forward.  But, we also need to think critically about what the event asks us to accept.

A spectacle of the best horses in the world running for the biggest purse in the world asks us to buy into it as part of Vision 2030’s narrative of Saudi Arabia becoming more open and inviting the world’s attention.  Evidence suggests that this spotlight on major sporting events casts a shadow over continued repression of critical speech from both activists and journalists. Prince Bandar’s invitation last August for the world to watch, attend, and cover the Saudi Cup can only be understood in the broader context of what the Saudi government allows people to see, discuss, and state publicly.

It’s time to take off the blinkers.

individuals, institutions, and That Breeders’ Cup Tweet

If you haven’t read Teresa Genaro’s article at Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, The Breeders’ Cup and that misguided ‘locker room’ tweet, please do.  It provides the backstory for this entire discussion, including the original (now-deleted) tweets).

Earlier today, I saw an exchange between Teresa Genaro and Emily Shields, about getting across the point that the biggest step over the line was the Breeders’ Cup’s retweet of Bram Weinstein’s original tweet.

Genaro’s point in the article, and Shields’s point online, made instinctive sense to me even last Saturday during the frenzy of the Breeders’ Cup.  Bram Weinstein’s original tweet was crass enough, but the Breeders’ Cup imprimatur somehow made it seem worse.

I have a thought on why.

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Claiming Crown week!

I make no secret of the fact that I love horse racing at all levels.  I have favourite horses who run in Grade I stakes, $4,000 claimers, and everywhere in between.  Though much of the ink in horse racing is spilled over the graded stakes, the road to the Kentucky Derby, the road to the Breeders’ Cup, the big racing days…for one weekend,

I had no idea that the Claiming Crown even existed until last year, and I found the concept fascinating.  You mean…there’s a day of stakes races only eligible to horses who have run in the claiming ranks?  It sounded awesome, and it was awesome.  When I watched last year, I wasn’t all that familiar with most of the runners (other than Ribo Bobo, of course!), but the concept had me hooked.

This year, I am a bit more familiar with the sport, and with the horses.  There is a slew of horses coming in from the Chicago circuit.  I’m particularly excited about Gimmeadrink after his long and winding road from $4,000 races at Suffolk to being beaten all of two lengths in the Washington Park Handicap (GIII) this summer…with a streak of nine wins in ten starts along the way.  Though he’s one of the runners with whom I am most familiar, he sheds light on both reasons why the Claiming Crown is one of my favourite racing events of the year.

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dreams, aspirations, and tweeting horses

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I love horse Twitter accounts.  I follow dozens, and chat with some of the tweeting horses rather frequently.  Some people may find the accounts silly, but for some horse racing fans, they are a fun way to stay on top of the sport.  I wish more people in horse racing would set up Twitter accounts for their horses, or at least for their barns.  They are no magic panacea for drumming up interest in the sport, but they can help along that path.  They can be a useful way to engage fans who enjoy using social media and who have a bit of a sense of humour about the sport.  I could not care less what level a horse runs at: if an account associated with a racehorse has fun pictures, good information, or anything that makes me happy as a horse racing fan, then it can bring some good to the sport.

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two weeks, two emotions, one sport

For two weeks in a row, I have been choking back tears while writing the Arlington stakes recap.

Last week, it was for the worst sort of reason: a freakish paddock accident that claimed the life of Apropos, the morning-line favourite for the Chicago Handicap.

I’m grateful that I didn’t see her fall, but still haunted by the aftermath I did see, before the screens went up.  It’s a horrible reminder of how fragile life is, and how fragile horses are…as dazzling as My Option’s closing run was, as game as Flower Spell’s ability to hold second was, I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that Apropos had walked into the paddock minutes away from contending in a graded stakes, and left the paddock in a van.

This week, it was for the best sort of reason: an emphatic assertion by nine-year-old gelding Saint Leon that the five and a half furlongs on the Arlington Park turf between the starting gate and the finish line are his, and his alone, until someone can catch him.  Again this year, no one could.

It was a long road for Saint Leon to even his first Arlington Sprint: $5,000 claimers at Mountaineer, an injury to his cannon bone, a year off.  During his year off he found his way to the Michele Boyce barn, and his race record since speaks to the care she has taken with him.  He has been running in allowance and stakes company in the last four years.  He has particularly sparkled in turf dashes, and is six-for-six on the Arlington turf under Boyce.  This streak includes the last three editions of the Arlington Sprint.

People wonder why I’m into horse racing.  Horses are beautiful, and seeing them run fast is a lot of fun.  Close finishes, big moves on the track, last-to-first closing runs…what unfolds on the track is thrilling, more thrilling in my eyes than any other sport.  Even off the track, the lingering question of how to breed a champion racehorse is a fascinating puzzle.  All of these are easy answers, and things I bring up when people ask me that question in casual conversation.

But, one of the other things that keeps me following the sport?  It grabs my emotions.  I’m so negative and jaded about so many other things in life, but horse racing is somehow different.  There are certain humans in the sport who may frustrate me…but in the end, it’s all about the horses, and how can you not like a horse?  I have my favourites, of course, for one reason or another.  I have the ones who capture my imagination, the ones who ran races that are particularly memorable for me, the ones who have given me particularly endearing looks while they walk around the paddock.  But, compared to anything else I’ve come across in life or in sport, it is the purest form of “rooting-for”.  How can you root against a horse?  How can you want anything for any of the horses but health, soundness, and a peppermint if they are being really, really good?

Whenever anything bad happens to a racehorse, I can’t help but feel sick.  Whenever anything really good happens, when they put up a huge race or handle a rise up the class ladder with style, I can’t help but get beside myself with happiness.  And, that’s why both Apropos and Saint Leon are such strong examples of this: they emphasize the whenever part.  Neither of them are horses I followed specifically.  I had heard of both of them before they entered into their recent races at Arlington, but had never written a piece about either of them, or spent an evening reading up on their histories.

And, yet, I’m emotionally invested no matter what.  It’s crushing, it’s exhilarating, it’s complicated, and it’s a huge reason that I can’t set this sport aside.

a tiny bit of track etiquette

This piece is jointly published at Picks & Ponderings.

Everyone has their stories about interesting folks-about-track.  I have fewer than others, since I haven’t been a regular at the races for as long as some others have been, but even I am starting to amass a collection of charming anecdotes.

There was the guy at Hawthorne back in March who, in the midst of his incoherent ranting, tried to get me on the phone with his wife to convince her to get out to the track that sunny Wednesday afternoon.  I politely declined, and he wandered off.

There was the group of drunk guys in suits on Springfield Stakes day this year who, seeing the sheaf of PPs in my hand, asked me for my picks and compared them to the sheet they bought.  They ribbed me for giving them losers when Fast Alice — my top pick, but nowhere on their orange sheet — came home as a 12/1 longshot over the odds-on Rivelli chalk in the second race.  I laughed, told them I gave them that one, and we periodically bantered about who we bet on whenever we ran into each other through the day.

There are always the goofballs, the drunks, the folks who get excited, the folks who swear their heads off when their horse loses that photo.  It’s part of the game, and part of the charm of the racetrack.  I embrace the fact that all of us who love this sport are probably, in one way or another, a little eccentric.

This is not a blog about etiquette.  This is a blog about horse racing.  However, it’s important to me as a horse racing fan that the racetrack should be somewhere where everyone feels welcome to experience and enjoy the sport.  This weekend, I had the first encounter I’ve ever had at a racetrack that crossed the line from “character at the track” over to “complete lack of common courtesy”.

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