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The Italian rider almost quit after losing his place on the Hong Kong roster, but speaking to Asian Racing Report at Qatar’s developing second track, he looks forward to a Hong Kong reconnection in Doha.
The sun is dropping low over Al Uqda racecourse and the cooling wind, perhaps this Arabian winter’s last breath, is whipping at the canopies from under which a smattering of trainers, owners and guests watch the last race of the day. Sleeveless puffer jackets are the wardrobe pick among the expatriate contingent.
Alberto Sanna faces the blustering wind in his racing silks, leading the field of Purebred Arabians off the home turn and driving his mount Ghannam towards the finish line. A rival challenges his outer flank and his legs grip tighter as his arms pump harder. The outcome is a neck victory.
The Italian takes that one win from the card’s seven low-key races but it was the one he wanted, the Al Arish Cup, the feature, a conditions race carrying a purse of QR80,000 (about US$22,000).
“The prize money here is good; there is no tax and we get 10 percent for winning and placing. Life is expensive in Qatar but it’s good prize money – it’s going up next year – and it’s easy for me,” he tells Asian Racing Report.
Sanna is the most polished talent on Qatar’s circuit, a two-track jurisdiction nowadays since the as-yet-unfinished but operational Al Uqda held its first fixture on January 31, 2021, using a rented photo finish system and a converted stable for a stewards’ room.
Alberto Sanna celebrates his Al Arish Cup victory. (Photo by Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club)
It is close to Al Khor, about 52 kilometres north of Qatar’s main track, Al Rayyan, which is in the suburbs of the capital Doha and is home to this weekend’s international Group 1 fixture.
Al Uqda’s partially-built grandstand, glass-fronted and very much in the style of the region, will be a smart feature once completed; no one seems to know exactly when that will be. It is situated within sight of the Al Bayt Stadium – a venue for the recent soccer World Cup – and is being constructed beyond the current turn out of the home straight; the track is soon to be extended past the grandstand – turf outer and inner sand – which will create about a 500-metre run for home.
For now, the 30 or so spectators – excluding the bevvy of grooms gathered by the winning post – sit beneath the billowing sun shades. The stewards’ room is a temporary cabin, as are the rudimentary weighing room, jockeys’ room, and shower block; temporary paving between the huts is nothing more than loosely laid planks of wood that wobble underfoot.
Camera towers will be built, in time, but for now the races are captured using a series of cameras on tripods located around the outside rail; in contrast, the stewards have the benefit of an innovative piece of kit, a drone camera, buzzing along overhead as the horses gallop the turf.
The Al Uqda jockeys' room. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
The new grandstand under construction at Al Uqda racecourse. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Al Uqda's makeshift stewards' room. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Track attendants go to work at Al Uqda. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
A bigger contrast, in Sanna’s mind, is the all too obvious one with Hong Kong. Even during the dark days of Covid lockdowns, Sha Tin, with its elite facilities and plush dining venues, would have had far more folks on the ground in operational personnel alone; and it is a far cry from the heaving 88,000 capacity of a full-blown Chinese New Year race day.
But behind Al Uqda’s makeshift front is a polished training centre, a completed complex of solid stable blocks with grass turnout paddocks, a swimming pool and veterinary centre; home to seven trainers and their horses, some based full-time and others satellite operations for the 40 or so handlers based at Al Rayyan.
Sanna turns his head and gestures towards the weighing room hut.
“There is a lot to do in Qatar but what I have seen in the past few months has been some good changes,” he says. “They have introduced more people with overseas experience; I’m not saying the people here were not good and professional, but the people they have brought in are people with international experience at a higher level.”
One of those is the new chief steward, Philip Dingwall, who spent several years in Hong Kong working with two of the sport’s most experienced and respected stipes, Kim Kelly and Steve Railton. Handicapper and steward Marcus Weedon also has a global profile, including time spent with the British Horseracing Authority and at Selangor in Malaysia.
Sanna’s past Hong Kong experience has elevated his own skills, his sharpness, and his competitive edge, to a higher plane than his rivals: the difference is evident. But the ease of the actual race-riding in Qatar is a frustration; they might ride tighter than in neighbouring Bahrain but it is still lightyears from a bustling 12-runner Class 3 at Happy Valley.
Alberto Sanna plays up to the crowd after a win at Happy Valley in September of 2019. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)
“I like more intensity in the competition than I get here,” he says.
The rider’s often-serious expression, at times dour, masks a friendly disposition that breaks out at other times in a wide smile; a straight-talker, too, there is an intensity to his very nature, befitting a man who famously would often run up a small mountain given enough time between riding horses at morning trackwork in Sha Tin.
In that vein, Sanna is looking forward with relish to a higher-octane challenge at Al Rayyan this weekend, when Qatar’s big international day will bring in outside horses, trainers, and riders. He will team up with Hong Kong’s legendary jockey-turned-trainer Douglas Whyte, taking the reins on the Hong Kong raider Russian Emperor in the feature, the G1 Amir Trophy over 2400 metres.
Sanna says the last month has been ‘bad’ as he suffered two race falls and dropped to third in the Qatar premiership, which is decided on prize money rather than wins accrued.
“I’ve been taking less rides and not taking any risks because I want to perform well for Dougie in the big one,” he says.
“He first called me about running Stronger here in the sprint race and I suggested to run Russian Emperor because now the race is worth US$2.5 million, so he decided to come because it’s a good opportunity, it’s not a strong race; but at the same time, it’s not easy because the track (at Al Rayyan) is sharp, not as sharp as Happy Valley, but it’s not big like Sha Tin.
“You start off to the side and then join the main track and have to make a full circuit, so it’s on the side of the horses that run close to the pace. The straight is 380 metres, so it’s a bit shorter than Sha Tin and the track is right-handed. It will be a tough race but Russian Emperor has Group 1 form.
“If it goes well,” he adds, “maybe I can ride the horse in Hong Kong.”
Alberto Sanna and trainer Douglas Whyte (Photo: Lo Chun Kit)
Alberto Sanna winning the TWGH Challenge Cup on Big Fortune (Photo: Lo Chun Kit)
That is still the dream for Sanna. The rider was part of the Hong Kong scene for more than two years after he arrived late in the 2016-17 season and overcame injuries to rise up the ranks with a reputation for hard work and supreme fitness, as well as, most importantly, an ability to win races.
But his tenure in the east Asian hub came to an abrupt conclusion in December 2019 when the HKJC opted not to re-licence him after he was slammed with a 10-meeting suspension. The stewards deemed he had not taken ‘all reasonable and permissible measures’ on Dances With Dragon at Sha Tin on November 17 that year.
“I want to go back because I left like I was the worst person in the world,” he says.
Sanna was adamant at the time that he was guilty of a poor ride and not anything untoward. He admits that he had difficulty accepting the Jockey Club’s decision.
“For nine months after that I didn’t ride, I didn’t even think about horses,” he says. “I became heavy, I think I was 72 kilos and it was the time of Covid. I was quite depressed because I had given my whole self to doing well in Hong Kong and I got cut off at the wrong time: I was doing well, I was fit. I had ridden nine winners by the beginning of November, so I was winning, I won the Ladies’ Purse, I was doing alright.”
Alberto Sanna and fellow Italian jockey Umberto Rispoli, who also departed Hong Kong in 2019, at Sha Tin trackwork. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)
Alberto Sanna takes out the G3 Ladies' Purse on Southern Legend (Photo: Lo Chun Kit)
He went home to Italy and struggled to find any spark of desire to resume as a jockey.
“It was my wife, she was the one that pushed me to get back to business,” he says. “My first ride back in Italy was a winner in a small country track, and from there I started to ride back in Italy, but I had no intention to go back to riding in the Gulf, I wanted an easy life with the family, I wanted to enjoy family life.
“But then they asked me to come over here and it was the best season I’ve had, I broke the prize money record for a season, I was champion jockey, and I won the Amir’s Sword for a second time.”
Sanna has established a pattern of riding in Qatar during the winter and Europe during the spring and summer months. Last year he teamed up with Germany’s champion trainer Henk Grewe but that only lasted a couple of months.
“I didn’t enjoy Germany, it didn’t work for me,” he says, “and Grewe had a disappointing season.”
He has won the past two editions of the G2 Premio Parioli, Italy’s 2,000 Guineas, including aboard Fayathaan in 2021 for owner Luigi Roveda, his main backer in Europe. The owner has since moved his interests to France and Sanna will lean that way too.
He will return to Rome this spring – his family will remain in Qatar – basing himself with trainer Sebastiano Guerrieri, and will also ride Roveda’s horses in France.
As for now, he says he is ‘the only jockey’ in Qatar this winter that is also travelling out regularly to ride in Bahrain and Saudi; sometimes he will make the Riyadh journey in his car, which he prefers to the palaver of flying. He is also ‘the only freelance jockey’ though, and that, he adds, makes it difficult to get on the best horses.
“To be on top you have to be the jockey of one stable, the Wathnan stable of the Emir. They have the best trainer, Alban de Mieuille, and he has his riders, Ronan Thomas and Soufiane Saadi. It’s like driving a Ferrari against a Toyota.”
Alberto Sanna before a race at Al Uqda. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Alberto Sanna holds ambitions of a return to Hong Kong. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Yet Sanna is happy in Qatar and a large part of that is down to the happiness of his family.
“I have a good life here, a good house, and I’m enjoying my life with my family,” he says. “The kids go to school here and they’re happy. I’m not running any more, before you have kids and you’re young, you’re running behind the man and you want, you want. When you’re settled and you have the security in life after what you’ve achieved, you just want the quality.”
After Russian Emperor’s run in the Amir’s Trophy, he will head across to Riyadh for the Saudi Cup meeting where he has a couple of intended rides on the lucrative card.
Whether or not he will eventually be granted his dream of riding again in Hong Kong, even for a fly-in to partner Russian Emperor, remains to be seen. That decision lies in the hands of the HKJC’s Licensing Committee.
“I don’t know if the ambition is possible,” he says. “But that is the ambition, to go back to Hong Kong and say goodbye in a good way, not the same way as last time.”
As he offers a warm, firm handshake, and crosses the rickety plank paving to Al Uqda’s rudimentary jockeys’ room, there is a sense that Sanna – like the Qatar racing officials – is focused on a future that he believes holds plenty of promise.
America is the tonic Umberto Rispoli needed
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