Belgium: In the week that Lionel Messi broke Pele’s record for career goals for single club, big plans are afoot for his equine namesake, Messi, a leading Arab racehorse.
The Barcelona superstar scored his 644th goal for the Catalan club in their 3-0 away win over Real Valladolid on Tuesday [Dec 22] to surpass Pele’s mark for Santos in Brazil.
Now Belgian part-time trainer Timo Keersmaekers has his eyes set on the Obaiya Arabian Classic on the Saudi Cup card in Riyadh on February 20 with his Arabian horse named after the Argentine legend.
Messi (the horse) netted more than $800,000 when storming home to win the $1.3m Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Jewel Crown at Abu Dhabi on December 4, having narrowly failed to land an all-the-way victory in the Qatar Arabian World Cup at Longchamp on Arc day in October.
Keersmaekers, who has just eight horses in his family’s stable 30km from Antwerp, is dreaming of another huge pot in the $2m Obaiya Arabian Classic, the world’s richest race for Purebred Arabians.
“It’s a great target for Messi,” says Keersmaekers. “He proved himself in Paris and what he did in Abu Dhabi was great. We had dreamed of competing against the best Arabian horses and Messi has helped us live that dream.
“I wouldn’t have thought about the Obaiya Arabian Classic before now, but he deserves his place in those sort of races.
“He’s an eight-year-old, nearly nine, so I’m aware we need to do it now. We’re not able to say ‘maybe next year or the year after’ – that’s not possible. We need to enjoy him now. I need to try to keep him at the level he is at and go to the races with him in the form he is in now.”
If it wasn’t for the global Covid-19 pandemic, Keersmaekers would have been too busy to worry too much about the world’s top Arab races. He would have had other cups – plus saucers and plates – on his mind as the boss of a successful tableware business in Belgium.
He had started training his parents’ Arab horses while studying at college as a teenager but had to pack it in as his business interests began to take over, leaving little time for the demanding world of racing.
“I’ve always had horses but with my business I didn’t have the time to train them myself,” he explains. “Normally, I spend 70 days a year travelling at trade fairs and visiting clients. This year, due to the coronavirus, I was able to spend that time with the horses so I said ‘ok, we’re going to train them ourselves again’.
Having started riding showjumpers in his early teens before switching to Arab horses, Keersmaekers has developed a unique training style.
“I started riding showjumpers at 14 and then my parents got involved in Arabian show horses,” he says. “There were a few which are not good enough for shows so we started racing them. Our trainer wasn’t getting the results so I said to my mother that we should start training them ourselves at home and it went very well.
“We try to mix a little bit of the normal horse racing training and a few ingredients of showjumping training. We have a 750m oval training track. It’s not fancy or anything special and the horses are ridden out in the woods and forests.
“Messi trains a little bit in the morning and spends a lot of his time in the field – he enjoys it. He’s had a bow tendon in the past and he had to have an operation. I think being out in the field with the surface not being perfectly flat surface helps give him more elasticity in his legs.”
Messi has been in great demand since rising through the ranks to the premier league of Arab racing with big-money offers from inside Belgium, Turkey and the Middle East.
None of them have been enough to tempt Keersmaekers to part with his star striker and there is a certain football-mad member of his family keen to keep hold of the stunning snowy grey.
“I was breeding horses on the side and we had this foal,” says Keersmaekers. “I said to my nephew that he could name him. He picked Messi.
“It’s easy for people to remember his name now and he’s often been the underdog in his races so that’s generated even more interest.”