Horsereporter talks to Nelly about her influence in the Arabian horse world
April 15, 2014, California ~
Nelly, you are Chairwoman of the Arabian Horse Racing Club of Belgium (AHRCB) and you are credited with bringing Arabian racing back to Belgium. Perhaps not just bring back, but restored to a high level by lots of work and dedication to get recognition for our high quality of racing.
Perhaps we’d better start at the beginning. Can you tell us the history of Arabian racing in Belgium? Arabian horse racing was started in Belgium by a group of enthusiasts headed by Nicole Carlin and Siolun Kann in the mid-eighties. This group organized a couple of races per year during Jockey Club meetings with small prize-money. After a few years, it became evident that the group needed to become established as a legal non-profit organization. That was when I was enrolled in 1993 – while I was not riding endurance due to back surgeries.
Once the association was legally recognized, the Jockey Club as well as the Belgian Arabian Horses Registry were supportive. During the next few years I worked as vice-president and was in charge of the PR and contacts with the sponsors. When Nicole had to quit for professional reasons, I took over all of the work.
At that time we could still find companies and private owners as sponsors. Participants came from Belgium, Germany and France, and sometimes England. The frequent and easy victories of the French horses initially caused a major dilemma to our Belgian participants until they gradually all switched (as well as progressively the Dutch owners as well) to French bloodlines.
I had been exporting home-bred horses to Qatar as early as 1989 and to the Emirates a couple of years later. Through this effort, then later as delegate for Belgium in the ECAHO race commission, and also being involved in the creation of IFAHR, I had the chance to meet delegates and sponsors from the Middle-East. A further relationship with Faisal and Neil for the Emirates Equestrian Federation and Sami from Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club has been the happy result. The trust from these associations has formed a long-lasting cooperation and helped to bring the number up to 24 races per season in the early 2000’s.
At that time Arab horses raced on all of our major racetracks at Groenendael, Sterrebeek and Ostend. The total prize-money per season was around 100,000 euro with just a couple of peak races. The participants in these races (there were not that many real international races at that time in Europe) came from over 14 different countries.
What caused the decline in racing? The decline of the Thoroughbred racing was due to the very high tax levied on betting in Belgium. This caused the closing of two major racetracks between 2000 and 2005, and we concentrated AHRCB racing in Ghlin, a brand-new track of 1600m, (basically a trotting racetrack), and went to Ostend for the international races.
In 2007, the historical Wellington racetrack at Ostend was judged insecure by the fire-services and reconstruction was planned. This began in 2008 and the track was closed for racing for four years. Our sponsors of the Middle East did not appreciate Ghlin and Arab racing came to a stop in Belgium except for 2-3 races per year since 2008, just to keep the spirits of our participants up.
You are an endurance rider; have you always been interested in Arabian racing? My personal motivation for entering the flat race world was trying to maintain and promote the races over longer distances and to protect the 3-years olds of our slow maturing breed.
On the other hand as a breeder since 1976 and admirer of the versatility of the breed, I was scared (and it did happen) that with the specialization of the Arab horses in showing (extreme type, but sometimes losing athletic ability) or racing (athletic but with total loss of type), the breed would split up into three separate sub-breeds – with endurance as the third. Whereas I think an Arab horse should have type, speed and endurance (according to what he was bred for by the Bedouins) all in the same individual, albeit not in an extreme measure, I felt I should keep a hand in these three activities; show, racing and endurance.
Being an ECAHO international show judge since 1995, an endurance rider on the highest level (120 -160km) since 1985, I just missed that one connection with racing. As the sport does not appeal particularly to me for participation, I thought fighting in that world for two ideals; stayer races and no three-year old races would compliment my other activities.
What started you on the journey to return Arabian racing to Belgium? As we always had good relationships with our sponsors in the Middle East, they came back to us immediately when the Ostend track was functional again in 2013. Lara Sawaya, as Director of the Sheikh Mansoor al Nahyan Global Arabian Horse Flat Racing Festival, already had given us her confidence through one Wathba Stud Farm Cup in Ghlin in 2012. The following year, we had the honor to be allowed to organize a Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Cup in Ostend, thus bringing the number of prestige races during the Ostend meeting (July and August only) up to three. In 2014 we will have four including two major races; the Sheikh Zayed Cup and the HH Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Championship (IFAHR), with increased prize-money.
We also now have the President Cup (EEF), and the Qatar Wellington Cup (QREC). The major changes these sponsorships brought to racing was (after 20 years of struggle) recognition of Arab races that are equivalent to TB races in their quality. The consequence of this was the inclusion in the Equidia on-line betting program on Premium race days.
Equidia, the French TV Channel dedicated to Racing and Equestrian sports, is now offering betting on the Belgian Premium Arabian races. What steps specifically brought about Equidia’s involvement? Equidia has been involved in the Belgian races since 2012. They first covered trotting races in Ghlin, as that track is located next to the French border and always attracted some French turfists. This new income provided by the Equidia betting system meant the revival of the Belgian trotting and TB racing. In 2013, as the Jockey Club stewards realized how much the quality of our Arab races had improved, they included the three Prestige races into betting during the 2013 season.
We had three very exciting races over the summer:
– in the President Cup there was an extreme battle among two horses that ended with a win by a nose.
– in the Qatar Wellington Cup, it ended with four horses within a horses length
– in the Sheikh Zayed Cup, we had the easy victory of No Problem Al Maury. He went on to win the Group I PA race in Istanbul and arrived second behind So Big is Better at Santa Anita. A horse of that level in a listed PA race at Ostend is of course an excellent reference.
Quality racing made the Jockey Club stewards and the people in charge of the betting program look at the Arabian races with a different eye. Definitely good prize money makes good racing, and all is thus due to the support we receive from our generous sponsors. Let them be thanked once again here.
Editor’s Note: France’s Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU) horseracing monopoly has tied up with the country’s two leading iTV services, CanalSatellite and Télévision Par Satellite to launch the Equidia channel.
Both Qatar NEAR and HH Sheikh Mansoor Global Festival Wathba Stud Farm Cup races have helped to lift the entries of Arabians at Ghlin. Do you see more entries and hear more enthusiasm for breeding due to these two helpful foundations? Both these programs are intended to encourage the local breeders and are quite effective in doing so. It is obvious that our breeders and owners need smaller (but still with an attractive purse of 5,000 euro) races to have the chance to test their young horses before entering them in the Prestige races where they have to challenge the best European horses. Over the two (Wathba Stud Farm Cup) and three years (Qatar NEAR) races, Belgium has already seen a positive result, bringing us new owners and motivating some breeders to switch to racing bloodlines. In fact we do need more of these local races, in which Dutch, German and French (from trainers located in the North or close to Paris) horses generally take part, just to keep the horses of our local breeders owner and trainers busy over the season. It is obvious that four or five races a year of that level don’t provide the desired panoply of different races to fit all horses.
Qatar NEAR is sponsoring a Breeders Premium for winners of in Qatar NEAR races from Northern Europe. How effective is this program? As most of our participants are breeders, owners and trainers of their horses, this will give another boost to the local sport. We are grateful to Hannie and Sami from Qatar and Margreet and Wieger from Holland for this brilliant idea, and to the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club for the financing.
The Qatar Wellington Cup €20,000, The Presidents Cup, €30,000, and the two Sh Mansoor Festival Arabian races to run at Ostend – HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies World Championship (IFAHR) €30,000, and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan Cup, €35,000. are also good prize money. Do you expect to see entries from all over Europe in these races? Our international races in Ostend have always attracted horses from all over including Scandinavia, North Africa, England, Russia and the Middle East. We used to have 14 different nationalities represented between horses, owners, trainers and jockey’s, and in 2013 we approached that number again in the three Prestige races.
In 2013, we had a record number of entries of 24 horses at Ostend, showing how much the trainers like this track. This year the track is undergoing rehabilitation and will be equipped with an automatic sprinkling system that should provide a perfect turf-carpet.
What is the protocol to enter a race in Belgium? It is very easy to race in Belgium from anywhere abroad, and I am here to help.
From this year onwards, the Jockey Club of Belgium has a very well-designed and easy on-line registration system. Entries are usually taken 14 days before the race date. From abroad, for a horse that has not yet run in Belgium, it is best to send the new horse form earlier to the Jockey Club for entry in the trainers list. From this year onwards there will again be a permanent grounds keeper on the Ostend track allowing horses to arrive early after a long trip. Trainers, especially from England, should be aware that we can no longer accept amateur jockeys during Premium (Equidia) races. These are France-Galop rules.
Were you raised with horses? No, there was no horses nor horse talk in my family, except great-grandfathers that were cavalry riders. Despite this, before walking on two legs, I already escaped from home to be found in the pasture of a far neighbors dangerous pony.
Every birthday my list was very short: I’d like to receive a horse. My parents finally let me start riding when I was 10 years old and it went from there. My first earned money, when I was finally named assistant in Physics at Brussels University, was spent on the acquisition of a horse, an Andalusian gelding on which brakes had been an option and I had not taken that option. That experience put me in the hospital a couple of times.
For the next horse I switched to Arabian, which were harder to find then. The first one I purchased in 1976 was a yearling, a Tamerlan daughter. Next we bought a pregnant mare and my first foal, a The Shah (Babson lines sire) was born in 1976, and was to become my first endurance ride from 1983 onwards, and also my first stallion licensed for public stud by the selection committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, thus allowed to breed mares belonging to other owners.
Is your farm a breeding farm? Yes, after the simple mathematical rule governing the life of horse lovers: one, two, too many. I bred some 150 foals at Moirmonay Stud. They did extremely well in showing in the beginning, when showing was not so extremely artificial yet, and later I bred essentially for endurance, producing some 20 horses doing well in the highest 160km level and one European Vice-Champion and twice top-ten in World Championship (Malaysia and Kentucky) and finishing 8 x 160km rides in a row.
Many of our horses were exported to the Middle East but also as far as Japan and South and North America. Five years ago I resumed breeding myself and I concentrate on selling semen of my proven endurance stallions to countries emerging in the field of endurance (like Ecuador) or insular countries that need some fresh blood in their endurance stock (like South Africa). As I have no sentimental attachment to semen, this business is easier for me than seeing the horses I have bred and raised leave the yard.
Do you still participate in endurance races and organization of these races? I had organized a ride around our farm for a couple of years in the late 80’s, but stopped for 15 years due to repeated back surgery. When I was 50, I thought that if I did not start riding, I would never ride again. I decided to ride an Egyptian stallion, not of my breeding, that was standing at our farm before export to the Emirates, and which I was asked to keep in basic training level. I have never had a horse that tried to buck me off with all sorts of awful tricks, but at least he proved to me I could still ride.
I then trained one of my pure Russian breeding stallions that went on to compete over the years. He is now 19, as is my other endurance horse, a huge gelding of Spanish-Egyptian bloodlines with which I completed a 160km ride at his age of 16. Both horses are now retired as I will spend most of this year recovering from successive surgical interventions (hip, knee, shoulders etc ).
What is your favorite competition horse? My once-in–a–lifetime horse (breeding and riding, but not in competition as I acquired him when he was 17), is the Tersk-bred Kniazj, by Naslednik out of Kipuchaia by Pomeranets ,and thus a close cousin to Persik, the renowned French (Russian) endurance-sire. Kniazj was an exceptional character, and produced very athletic and good-tempered horses with extremely good legs, among them a European Show Jumping Champion for all breed ponies in 2003.
My most pleasant and easy competition horse, especially for the longer distances, was that out-sized gelding that I competed in endurance recently.
Do you have expectations for the future of Arabian racing in the world? I hope that we can, all over the world, continue to be favored with the sponsorship of the Middle Eastern horse-lovers, so as to keep the standard of racing up to what it has grown to recently. In particular thanks to our Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club and to the Emirates Equestrian Federation. The sponsorship by the HH Sh Mansoor Festival as governed by Lara Sawaya gives an extra dimension to the whole racing scene, putting the human and glamour aspect forward in the racing community thanks to her original approach.
Anything else you wish to say? As to my personal ideology, I hope that more people will understand that the true nature of the pure Arab horse asks for races over longer distances than what the trainers tend to ask for, and if we had stick to those distances appropriate to our stayer-breed, we would actually have less discussion about the purity of such and such a bloodline. Training for anaerobic efforts up to 1800m is totally different to what the original Arabian horse was meant for with his typical slow-twitch muscle proportion. Therefore, in my opinion, endurance is a more realistic selection criterion for the Arab horse than flat racing over short distance. Independent of that, I enjoy watching people enjoying the races.
Belgian Jockey Club: http://www.jockey-club.be
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