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Often on the regular shows that I do on the Horse Racing Radio Network my co-host Anthony Stabile and I talk about how the world is becoming smaller thanks to social media and interactivity. It's more possible than ever to follow what's happening in other parts of the world, and to learn from that. Sometimes, we even get lucky enough to see those things in person.
Back in December, I was fortunate enough to travel to Hong Kong as a member of the social media team for the Hong Kong International Races. Talk about the influence of social media! Team #HKIR got to watch racing both at Happy Valley and Sha Tin, Hong Kong's two racetracks. And just recently, I found myself on yet another international trip. This time, I embarked from JFK Airport on a flight to Doha, Qatar for HH the Emir's Sword race meeting in the last few days of February. I’ve had a very hard time putting this experience into words, to be honest, but here’s my best shot!
VIEW OF DOHA FROM MY BALCONY
Qatar is a fascinating place and one that I admittedly knew very little about before my trip. Roughly 85 percent immigrants (many from bordering Saudi Arabia or nearby Egypt and Sudan), the State of Qatar is rapidly developing in so many ways. Doha, the capital, is filled with huge, fancy buildings and five-star hotels and more coming every day. Horse racing is also developing in Qatar, and the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club (QREC) was established in 1975. The first edition of HH the Emir’s Sword Festival, their biggest racing event, took place in 2001 and since 2008 Qatar has been the sponsor of the prestigious Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. With constant adjustments and improvements to the facilities and to the arrangement of the races in general, I can only imagine how much Qatar racing will continue to progress in the coming years.
The QREC tried out a lot of new things this year for HH the Emir’s Sword, including some changes in their broadcast coverage. Nick Luck and Gina Harding, presenters from Channel 4 Racing in the UK among other things, were brought in to cover the three days of racing. The QREC had never before done post-race interviews with a reporter on horseback, much like we are familiar to seeing here in the United States on some of the bigger race days, and you can imagine how excited I was when I was asked to be the first.
WITH NICK AND GINA
I arrived in Doha on a Wednesday evening and Thursday started the first day of racing for HH the Emir’s Sword Festival. I got to the track early even though the first post time wasn’t until 4:30 p.m. local time so that I could meet with the producer, JB Lebon, as well as meet the horse I’d be riding over the next few days.
I always say that horses, like people, have their own unique, individual personalities. No two are the same, physically, mentally, or in any other way. I learned this very quickly firsthand when I started working with off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) as a teenager, transitioning them from the racetrack to a new career. Finding a spot that fit was sometimes a challenge for a particular horse, but there was no feeling more rewarding then placing an OTTB in a forever home and watching him or her flourish in that new job. Thankfully, these experiences prepared me in more ways than I realized at the time.
Two horses, Spider and Chex, had also put their racing days behind them. I’m not sure of their exact history, but I was told that they had raced on a quarter horse track in the United States. They found themselves in Qatar about a week before I did.
I had known that this was not going to be easy but climbing aboard Chex before the start of the first race with a full grandstand with Arabian racehorses out on the track, and wind, music, and all kinds of other noises sounding in our ears I immediately realized it was going to be an even bigger challenge than I expected. If you’ve ever been on a scared bucking or rearing horse, try doing it on a racetrack with a microphone in one hand. As a rider, it is your job to stay calm, as your horse can feel every bit of tension in your muscles and feeds off that nervous energy. Those few days sure were one wild ride!
Photo by Salim Abdulla
I met some truly incredible people on my trip to Qatar, and, on the final day of racing when I spent some of my time interviewing on the ground around the track, talking to track patrons, I got to see firsthand the fusion of cultures that this rapidly developing country has to offer.
INTERVIEWING MILLINER YVETTE JELFS
I can’t say enough good things about the hospitality extended by the QREC for those of us present for HH the Emir’s Sword. I felt like royalty for a few days, and had an unbelievable adventure in the process.
The biggest thing I learned from this experience was that, when Plan A doesn’t work, there are still 25 letters left in the alphabet. In racing, like anything in life, sometimes you just have to roll with it.