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In sport, ethics often come off an also-ran – but a big race meeting in Saudi Arabia could start to bring change from within

Saudi Cup (5.40pm GMT) at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh
Benbatl will run in the Saudi Cup at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh Credit: Benbatl ridden by Oisin Murphy wins The Shadwell Joel Stakes during day two of The Cambridgeshire Meeting at Newmarket Racecourse. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday September 27, 2019

The bragging rights for the world’s most valuable horse race, which traditionally have ping-ponged between the United States and Dubai until Sheikh Mohammed got bored with writing ever-increasing cheques, now belong to a new player on the world racing stage: Saudi Arabia.

Princes of its kingdom have long owned some of Europe’s best bloodstock; indeed, arguably the sport’s most consistent owner-breeder of the past 40 years is Khalid Abdullah, who owned Dancing Brave and bred Frankel and Enable.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appBut on Saturday its hitherto small-fry domestic racing, with a population of 5,000 horses, gets a huge shot in the arm when it hosts the $20 million (£15.5 million) Saudi Cup (5.40pm GMT) at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, with $10 million going to the winner.

However, to put such riches into context, Tyson Fury’s fight against Anthony Joshua to determine the heavyweight champion of the world tipped to take place in the country before the year is out will doubtless make Saturday's card, worth just under $30 million, look like chicken feed.

For “world’s richest” race do not, necessarily, read “world’s best” race. Run on a dirt oval based on Belmont Park, it is being contested mainly by specialist American dirt horses, most of whom are unknown outside the bubble of American racing.

Seabiscuits they may not be but they are about the best bunch of dirt horses who were not retired to stud at the end of last year. They include Maximum Security, who was controversially thrown out by the stewards after winning last year’s Kentucky Derby, Mucho Gusto, winner of what was the world’s richest race, the Pegasus Cup, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up McKinzie.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appGiving it a bit of European interest are Benbatl, Godolphin’s perennial money-spinning globe-trotter, while Aidan O’Brien has thrown Magic Wand into the mix. Since finishing second in the Irish Champion Stakes in September she has barely seen the green grass of Tipperary as her itinerary has taken in three starts in Australia, one in Hong Kong, one in Florida.

But with the Saudi “dirt” riding with very little kick-back – which European horses so detest when they compete on it in America – she could outrun her odds of 25-1, not that those at the racecourse will be able to have a bet.

Or a drink, and, with a 200 riyals (£60) fine for swearing in public, there are a few British trainers who might find their few days in the Saudi capital beyond testing.

The turf track was only sown in November, which just shows what you can do with some grass seed, sun, fertilizer and a lot of money – in Britain it would take years to bed in – and the race on the under-card which will appeal most to a British audience is the Longines Turf Handicap over just under two miles, which looks like a half-decent cup race.

In the background, of course, is the moral question of whether racing should be giving the Saudi regime and its poor human rights record any credibility by attending en masse, or “sportswashing”, as it is termed.

But for sport in general – Formula One may be ready to run its first Saudi Grand Prix next year – ethics have nearly always come off an also-ran, some way behind the top line prize-money and, in racing’s case, race conditions.

Naturally, Amnesty International would like everyone to stay away but there is an argument that a big international race meeting can, in a small way, help speed change from within. It is not yet two years since women were allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia but, as an appetiser to Saturday's card, there was an international female vs male jockeys challenge on Friday.

I2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appt is being broadcast to 100 territories by HBA Media. It packs all the action into a one-hour programme called The Golden Hour or through a five-hour world feed package. Both programmes are directed by Denise Large, who at Channel 4 Racing was the first female to direct coverage of the Grand National.

On Friday, she was holding court at a production meeting, telling 30 men, her camera teams and producers, what to do. It is normal for us and, unless I am totally naive, the hope is that such scenes will soon be regarded as normal in Saudi Arabia.