The claim to be the world’s richest race has long been a prize worth winning
Once upon a time, an English nobleman challenged another to a wager to decide which of them had the fastest horse – and the sport of horseracing had begun. Early races were occasionally named after their prize money – such as the 2,000 Guineas, first run in 1809 – and, as breeding and racing thoroughbreds has grown into a global business, the stakes have, quite literally, become ever higher.
In 1886, a new racecourse to the west of London, Sandown Park, decided to promote itself with the help of a headline-grabbing contest: Britain’s first £10,000 event, the Eclipse Stakes.
Almost 50 years later, the Agua Caliente Handicap was the first to offer a US$100,000 purse – the big prize luring American competitors to the Mexican resort in the Prohibition era. Seabiscuit won it in 1938 and great Australian champion Phar Lap made his only northern hemisphere appearance in the race, winning in record time in 1932. Some 50 years later, another prize money breakthrough came in Chicago: the first million-dollar race.
In its first running, the Arlington Million Invitational – which is staged on turf – was won by Horse of the Year John Henry. The old boy did it again in 1984 at the age of nine, and he remains its only dual winner.
Though match races are now largely a thing of the past, racing fans were thrown an enticing prospect back in the summer of 2000 when HH Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai challenged Michael Tabor to a winner-takes-all US$12m contest between their outstanding colts Dubai Millennium and Montjeu. Alas, on the morning the challenge was issued, Dubai Millennium suffered a career-ending injury on the gallops and was retired.
The new Saudi Cup leads an illustrious roster of valuable contests attracting the best horses from all over the world.
With a race value of US$20m and a first prize of US$10m, the first running of the Saudi Cup in 2020 will be the richest race ever run. Its value is equivalent to that of all 635 races run in the Kingdom in the 2018-19 season, a potent indication of the Jockey Club Of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the sport.
Dubai World Cup
Created in 1996 and run annually on the last Saturday of March over 10 furlongs on the dirt, now for a purse of US$12m. The Hall of Fame American champion Cigar won the US$4m first running. Two of the most valuable turf contests in racing are now staged on the same card: the nine-furlong Dubai Turf and mile-and-a-half Dubai Sheema Classic, each worth US$6m.
Pegasus World Cup
In 2017 and 2018, America’s Pegasus World Cup knocked the Dubai World Cup off the top spot in the global prize money rankings. First run in January 2017 at Gulfstream Park, the inaugural race was won by Arrogate – owned and bred by Prince Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud.
It was worth US$12m, raised by 12 owners paying a stake of US$1m each to run. The following year, overall prize money was boosted to US$16m. Then in 2019, the nine-furlong dirt race, which had been given Grade 1 status, dropped in value to US$9m when the Pegasus World Cup Turf was included in the day’s program, itself with a US$7m purse.
In the same year the Pegasus World Cup was launched, Racing NSW in Australia introduced a similar contest: The Everest. Its USP is that, unlike all the other richest races, it is a sprint over 1200 metres (six furlongs). Staged during Sydney’s Spring Carnival in October, The Everest is the most valuable race in Australia, worth AUD$14m (US$9.8m). It is both the world’s richest sprint and richest turf race.
The self-styled Thoroughbred World Championships, the Breeders’ Cup was first run in 1984 as a triumphant last hurrah for the season’s best horses in America and beyond. Initially staged on a single afternoon, the meeting has grown to two days. The lucrative prize money is drawn from stallion and mare owners who pay nominations for sires and their offspring to be eligible to run. The meeting’s traditional finale is the 10-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic, nowadays worth US$6m. On the grass, the 12-furlong Breeders’ Cup Turf is run for prize money of US$4m.
Japanese racing boasts good prize money across the sport. Leading the way is the Japan Cup, an invitational race run over a mile-and-a-half on the Tokyo turf for ¥648mn (US$6m). The country’s premier Classic, the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), is run for ¥432m (US$4m).
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
Widely considered to be Europe’s premier weight-for-age contest, the Arc is also now also the continent’s richest race at €5m (US$5.6m). The mile-and-half-contest celebrates its centenary in 2020.
Once famed as the race that stops a nation, these days the two-mile Melbourne Cup can claim to beguile much of the racing world. In 2019, the total on offer is AUD$8m (US$5.6m) making it the world’s most valuable staying race.
The sport’s defining race, founded in 1780 and arguably the one with the most prestige: Epsom’s famous Blue Riband has given its name to many imitations around the world, but the original Derby, despite being Britain’s most valuable race, comes some way down the global rankings. In 2019, it was worth £1.62m (US$2m).