Nicholas Godfrey on the Bahrain International Trophy

International racing expert Nicholas Godfrey sets the scene as a cosmopolitan field full of Group 1 winners contests the £500,000 Bahrain International Trophy – live on Sky Sports Racing on Friday.

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Bahrain, one of the newest of the new outposts that keep popping up across the racing world, stages its sole international contest on Friday with the second edition of the Bahrain International Trophy.

If it’s anything like the first, then the £500,000 event at Sakhir will be well worth watching. Twelve months ago, a cosmopolitan field descended on the Arabian Gulf for Bahrain’s debut appearance on the global racing circuit.

Watch the Bahrain International Trophy from Sakhir live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 20th November at 1pm.

Your correspondent was lucky enough to be among those present for a landmark contest described locally as the most important day in the history of racing in the kingdom, which had never before hosted a race with overseas runners.

As if scripted, the race was marked by a thrillingly dramatic climax as French-trained Royal Julius (representing Skalleti’s handler Jerome Reynier, an alumnus of the Darley Flying Start scheme) flew down the straight to beat Godolphin’s Royal Ascot winner Turgenev under Rab Havlin.

Afterwards, as the sun went down behind a 3,000-capacity grandstand packed with an animated crowd at the Rashed Equestrian and Horseracing Club (REHC), everyone involved in staging such an ambitious event were able to reflect on a job well done.

But here’s the thing: a significant upturn in quality means this Friday’s race looks much better. While COVID-19 means there won’t be as many people in Bahrain this time around, it is a testament to the success of the initial contest that no fewer than five Group 1 winners are set to line up, headed by star Japanese racemare Deirdre, making what is set to be the final appearance of her globe-trotting career under new rider Hollie Doyle.

Ballydoyle weren’t involved in last year’s race but they’ve made sure not to repeat the error by supplementing last year’s Irish Derby winner Sovereign at a cost of £10,000; the remaining Group 1 winners are dual Canadian International scorer Desert Encounter, Godolphin representative Dream Castle and David O’Meara’s popular gelding Lord Glitters.

Throw in classy performers such as Bangkok and Global Giant, representing Andrew Balding and John Gosden respectively, and it is clear Bahrain is already making its presence felt. And all that for ‘just’ half-a-million – a tidy sum, though hardly enormous amount by current standards on the world stage.

What is more, with the European turf season done and dusted and the Dubai Carnival yet to start, Bahrain in November offers a convenient slot in the calendar.

While it has yet to be granted any international Pattern status, in reality the Bahrain International Trophy already looks like a nice Group 2 race in European terms, albeit one imbued with plenty of colour and a properly cosmopolitan field, comparing pretty favourably with similar events in Qatar or Turkey, or even North America Grade 1 turf events.

For good measure, they’ll also be hosting a veritable who’s who of British-based riders with champion jockey Oisin Murphy (Dream Castle) joined by Frankie Dettori (Global Giant), Ryan Moore (Sovereign), Silvestre de Sousa (Bangkok), William Buick (Loxley), Andrea Atzeni (Desert Encounter), Danny Tudhope (Lord Glitters) – plus the father-and-son team of John and David Egan, respective riders of Bahraini-trained pair Coolagh Forest and What A Welcome.

Small wonder, then, that REHC executive director Shaikh Salman bin Rashed Al-Khalifa sounds highly delighted at the way things are shaping up. “To have five individual Group 1 winners in the field compared to only one last year shows the leap in quality,” he said in a recent press release. “We are very grateful to the trainers and owners for placing their trust in Bahrain and we very much look forward to welcoming them to Bahrain.”

And rest assured, they will indeed be welcomed. The red carpet was rolled out for visitors in 2019: witness a reception at the embassy (Mr. Ambassador, you’re spoiling us…), dinner overlooking the Formula 1 circuit and a post-position draw ceremony held on the beach at the lavish Four Seasons hotel, which sits on its own private island in Bahrain Bay.

The racecourse itself, about 30km south of the capital Manama’s downtown area, is an oasis in the desert in both literal and metaphorical terms. Literal because there is indeed an oasis behind the winning post and big screen; metaphorical because a lush green racecourse – three sides and a sprint chute, loosely based on Ascot – offers a richly verdant-looking dichotomy to the endless sand that surrounds it.

Plus a few palm trees, the odd minaret, one of the royal residences and the stable complex: turn left at the mosque on the turn if you want directions to the barns.

Fast ground is a certainty, as maintaining a racing surface fit for purpose amid a Gulf climate is no easy task, as clerk of the course Neil Mackenzie Ross explained.

“We’re mid 40s through July and August so it’s hot, hot, hot,” he told me during last year’s visit. “As a result of that we irrigate just about every day of the year. I’ve got about 600 sprinklers to take care of.”

Bahrain can also turn out some good horses, as evinced by a high-profile double on the Saudi Cup undercard in Riyadh in February, when Fawzi Nass-trained Port Lions beat Deirdre in a result that might be worth remembering when the pair renew rivalries on the winner’s home turf in Bahrain on Friday.

Multiple Bahraini champion trainer Allan Smith, Essex boy and proud supporter of Southend FC, also stuck in the $1m stc Sprint with 66-1 shot Dark Power, ridden by his old mucker Frankie Dettori in Shaikh Isa's Al Adiyat silks.

Smith, who started his racing life as a teenage apprentice in Newmarket in 1966, supervises more than 100 horses, many of them inexpensive ex-Brits bought at the Horses-in-Training Sales. They are housed in six air-conditioned barns at the Royal Stables, next to the Arabian horse complex near the royal stud, all just beyond the winning post at Sakhir.

Formerly based in Belgium, he first went to Bahrain in 1994 when he answered an advert in the racing press. “The advert said it was for a prominent stable, so I thought I’d see what it was all about,” he recalls.

“But I didn’t know it was the Emir himself! I started off training local-breds and ended up with more thoroughbreds alongside Pat Rohan. Then Pat retired and I had the stable to myself.

“It has changed a bit here over the years,” Smith goes on. “It is competitive racing now and our top horses are definitely Group 3 horses. A lot of the work is buying decent horses, then also improving our local stock. But I used to be able to go to the sales in England to get an 80- or 85-rated horse and that would be enough for here but now you wouldn’t get a look-in.”

Smith will soon have a new colleague in the shape of Surrey-based trainer George Baker, who recently announced that he is to open a satellite yard in the kingdom to complement his efforts at home.

Charged with attracting new owners to the kingdom, the former City of London banker hopes to have the operation up and running at Sakhir in time for Bahrain’s 2021-22 racing season, which runs from October to April.

“They have a fantastic racing surface at Sakhir, as evidenced by the entries for the International Trophy and the fact so many reputable stables have sent horses there,” says Baker.

“For us it’s an opportunity to get a foothold in a jurisdiction that is very ambitious. It dovetails well with the core Flat season in Britain so we could have horses there and here,” the trainer adds. “They are keen to expand the profile of the sport and attract local Bahrainis and expatriates into racing and ownership.”

Just like the Dubai World Cup a quarter of a century ago, raising the profile of the sport in Bahrain – and, as a corollary, raising the profile of Bahrain as a whole – lies behind the creation of the Bahrain International Trophy.

It was a case of ‘so far, so good’ after the first chapter in 2019. Now for chapter two.


Watch the Bahrain International Trophy from Sakhir live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 20th November at 1pm.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Bahrain International Trophy
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