Spain: Trainer Alvaro Soto is aiming to fly the flag for Spain with Spanish horse of the year Oriental in the Saudi International Handicap, the new $500,000 addition to the Saudi Cup meeting in February.
The 2,100m (1m2½f) event is open to horses trained in countries not included in the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities’ list of ‘Part One’ nations – in effect, those trained outside the recognised major racing nations.
Oriental was horse of the year in Spain in 2019 after he joined Soto from his old boss Carlos Laffon-Parias, the Chantilly-based Spaniard, who used him as a lead horse for dual G1 winner Recoletos.
The son of Smart Strike won three races for Laffon-Parias before a string of significant victories last year, among them a pair of Spain’s biggest mile races in 2019 – the Gran Premio Gobierno Vasco and Gran Premio de la Hispanidad – as well as one of Morocco’s top prizes, the Grand Prix de la Sorec over 1m4f.
Oriental was hampered by breathing issues earlier this year but now Soto is confident he has solved those problems and intends to give the six-year-old a run on December 30 before preparing him for the Saudi International Handicap on February 19.
“He’s in great form – he could have run two weeks ago but I was waiting for this race,” says Madrid-based Soto. “I think it’s going to be a very easy race because it’s on the all-weather and all-weather races in Spain are not strong.
“In the morning Oriental is doing things I saw last year. I didn’t see them at the beginning of this year. He’s been galloping with a filly who won by six lengths last week and he was very easy beside her. I’m full of hope.”
Soto, 29, grew up in Seville, where his father owned horses, and he started riding out in his early teens after progressing from show jumpers. After riding 15 winners as an amateur jockey he turned to training in Madrid three years ago and he now has 22 horses in his yard.
“My whole life has been racing,” he says. “When I was at school I was always riding. I used to go to the racetrack in the morning and then on to school at 9am.
“It was the same when I was at university studying business. I had a very good relationship with Carlos Laffon-Parias as he is from Seville also. Our families are good friends so every summer I went to him in Chantilly.”
The link with Laffon-Parias has certainly been fruitful as it led to him snapping up Japanese-bred Oriental after he had won a Listed race at Craon in September 2018.
“When I came back to Spain I met M’Hammed Karimine, a Moroccan owner who was looking for a good horse,” explains Soto. “I saw Oriental work and said ‘you have to buy this horse – you are going to have a great time with him’.
“I knew he was a very good horse and we only had to change his mind as he had been the lead horse for Recoletos. I think we’ve done it. He was expensive but he won two of the best mile races in Spain last year and he was runner-up behind a good French horse in the other. He won in Casablanca, Morocco, over a mile and a half. That’s why I think he can be very useful in Saudi Arabia.
“The race is very good for him and he’s also a good traveller. To go to Casablanca last year, he had to travel for 18 hours and his behaviour was amazing.”
Travelling horses to the Middle East is nothing new to well-travelled Soto, who took runners to Qatar and Dubai when pupil-assistant to Marco Botti in Newmarket.
Soto sees a visit to Saudi as a chance to show what he can do on racing’s world stage. “This is the type of opportunity I’m looking for – it is very important for my career,” he says.
“Everyone will be at the Saudi Cup meeting and everyone will be watching. It’s very important to go to these type of races to meet people.
“I’m always thinking big – if you don’t think big you don’t go anywhere. I started training to be involved in these sort of races. It’s why I decided to make my life about racing. This is what makes me get up at 5am every morning – in the cold, on Sundays. I love horses and I love training – I don’t like anything else more than racing.
“For me, it would be amazing to go to Saudi Arabia but I wouldn’t be going there to make up the numbers, I’d be going because I think Oriental can be very competitive.
“If we could win, personally for me it would be very important and it’s also very important for Spanish racing. In Spain we only have 600 horses – that’s like two yards in Newmarket!”
• Visit the Saudi Cup website