With the Dubai World Cup preps concluded and the big night only a few weeks away, and the anticipation of seeing Arrogate, I thought I would get everyone in the mood by reprinting a feature (slightly condensed version) my daughter Mandy wrote for Dubairacenight.com in 2010 about her experiences visiting a place she had heard stories about since she was a child, and what it was like being there as guests of Godolphin for the much-anticipated opening of the new spectacular Meydan Racecourse. My thanks to Pat Cummings, founder of Dubairacenight, for providing her with an outlet to express her feelings and offer her observations.
When I was twelve years old, my father traveled to Dubai for the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup. The year was 1996, a strangely named horse called Cigar was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and my image of Dubai was something out of the Disney movie, Aladdin. My father returned with a treasure chest of amazing stories, gold jewelry, figurine camels, and even a “magic” carpet, all of which accessorized a picturesque desert-scape visited in my imagination for years to come.
My mind filled with frivolous fantasies, laced with gold and saffron and as wind-blown as sand dunes, surging forth with the excitement of a grand adventure. Each year, I would pester him to take me there, but it took a whole fourteen years for that dream to finally come true. The year is now 2010, a horse with an even stranger name almost wins, and Dubai looks more like the Jetsons than a Disney movie. In the weeks leading up to this trip, those starry-eyed childhood sentiments came out in full force. They were not disappointed.
It was actually quite appropriate that it took fourteen years to make this trip. This was a momentous year for Dubai racing, with a record $10 million purse for the World Cup, and more than $26 million in overall purses.T he race also found a new home at Meydan Racecourse, with a new synthetic track and a futuristic, 10-story grandstand measuring a kilometer in length with a crowd capacity of 60,000. Top that off with a cast of superstar horses, including Grade I winners from seven different countries in the World Cup alone.
It was a race to make any handicapper shrug. It was… well, a horse race. Meydan was the epicenter of international racing, and I was lucky enough to be there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning – to my first morning in Dubai. I awoke early without a hint of jet lag to attend the “Breakfast With the Stars” event held on the apron at Meydan. On this particular morning, Dubai lay under the thickest fog I’ve ever seen. Sitting in front of the grandstand, as immense and towering as it is, you could hardly tell it was there. A few flickering lights and faint shadows of architectural lines, but not much else. It was an eerie sight, like a gargantuan spaceship taking shape. Ever so slowly, the fog began to lift. At our breakfast table, my dad motioned for me to look up. With an audible gasp, I saw what had suddenly materialized over our heads. Jetting out from the rooftop, a mammoth crescent-shaped steel structure pierced through the fog above us.
This dramatic, suspended design, which is meant to look like a falcon’s wing, is made with 9,000 tons of stainless steel and equipped with 8,000 solar panels. “The falcon denotes speed and decisiveness, something integral to horse racing,” architect Teo A. Khing says. “Its steel claws grip the rooftop Bubble Lounge like a nest. Falcons have strong vision and it’s symbolic of a new future for horse racing. The Sheikh’s vision will continue on here.”
Vision is something Meydan Racecourse certainly does not lack. As the fog cleared, my own vision was restored and the stunning grandstand revealed itself in all its glory.
After the breakfast, we headed to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. The morning haze that still lingered in the air obscured the tower, making it resemble a Monet cathedral. Even as the sky turned a bright blue, the building’s needle-like tip disappeared into a stray cloud like a magic beanstalk. In a place of such colossal curiosities, I wouldn’t be half surprised to find a land of giants up there.
Next was a trip to the gold souk. We walked down endless rows of shop windows, each one glowing like the sun. My sights were set on the perfect pair of gold earrings. I found them, but also realized my complete ineptitude at haggling. In trying to get the price of a pair of $188 earrings down, I enthusiastically shouted out, “$175!” just as the salesman was quoting me a new price of $160. “Oh yes! I like yours better,” I said quickly before he could change his mind.
That night was the spectacular Arabian Nights party held some 50 miles out in the desert. We drove down an isolated road with nothing but sand dunes on either side (yet, the road strangely had speed bumps).We eventually came to an oasis of wonderment, entering through two tall wind towers lit by a soft yellow light, casting dramatic shadows over the pale stone.
A long carpet led us to an enormous outdoor amphitheater that rivaled the Colosseum. Around the sides of the amphitheater were hundreds of dining tables set up with sofas, Persian rugs, hookah pipes, flowers, champagne, and hors d’oeuvres. In the center, a brightly-lit stage showcased singers, chanters, belly-dancers, lavish costumes – a dazzling whirlwind of movement and color.
There was a parade of Arabian horses with torch-bearing riders, silhouetted camels being led across the horizon, exotic food, decadent desserts, and the most spectacular fireworks display I’d ever seen (that is, until the night of the World Cup – more on that later). And after weeks of anticipation, I finally got to ride a camel and hold a falcon in my hand. While scouting the camels out, one in particular made eye contact with me. We met each other’s glance and I could have sworn it grinned at me. Alright, camels do have a perpetual grin-like expression, but regardless, we had a moment. Two dramatic jerking movements later, it stood up and we took a stroll. I acknowledge that this was kind of the equivalent of a pony ride at a petting zoo, but who cares. It made me smile. All those childhood longings for adventures in far-off lands were happily appeased.
The whole event was something out of a dream. At any given moment, you could have found me looking around in complete awe, thinking to myself, “Where in the world am I?” My senses were in overdrive, and I slept like a baby the entire way back to our hotel.
The next day was spent soaking up sun on the beach, sipping pina coladas and riding waves in the sparkling Arabian Gulf. Looking back inland, our hotel, the Mina A’Salam, resembled a great sand castle, its façade carved with Arabic architectural detail.I t stood like a fortress behind rows of palm trees and white umbrellas. Nearby, rising like a shark from the water on its own artificial island, was the Burj Al Arab luxury hotel, sculpted by tons of steel to look like a billowing sail. It was fascinating to see both hotels, one dramatically looking toward the past, and one dramatically looking toward the future. And in between the two structures was me, dramatically looking out into the ocean, toes sinking into the sand, wondering just how I got this lucky.
On the morning of the World Cup, the sun was scorching by 9am. After spending a few more hours on the beach, the pre-race primping routine began. I don’t hesitate to admit that I absolutely love getting all dressed-up for the races. When else do you get the chance to dress like a chorus member of My Fair Lady? I put on my black cocktail dress, donned by big hat, stepped into my stilettos, curled my hair, painted my lips, grabbed my paddock pass, stuffed my notebook into my purse, and proceeded to dramatically glissade out of my hotel. We arrived early, before the hordes of people started flowing in.
Nevertheless, there were still plenty of people bustling around – a beautiful mix of ladies with eccentric hats, men in traditional dishdashas as well as business suits, stilt-walkers, dance troupes, all amidst the constant flicker of camera flashes.
We had a lovely suite, right above a horseshoe-shaped winners’ circle lined with red and white flowers. As the crowd grew, white dishdashas were sprinkled across our view of the apron like freshly fallen snow. A 107 meter-long LED screen stretched out across the infield, and on either side, over a dozen projection screens rose like pawns on the front line of a colossal chess board. Another distinctive feature of the track is the series of underground tunnels that allow the horses to be led to and from the track with less distraction. They emerge, as the architect Khing says, like “Roman gladiators in the Colosseum.”
The race results defined what international racing is all about. The UAE, Qatar, South Africa, Hong Kong, America, and England all claimed victories. And the World Cup winner, Gloria de Campeao, was bred in Brazil and ridden by a Brazilian, trained by a Frenchman, owned by a Swede, has a Portuguese name, and won last year’s Singapore Cup. If that’s not the quintessence of international racing, I don’t know what is. Many longshots ran to surprising victories, and many favorites failed to deliver.
Other than the World Cup, the most intriguing race for me was the $2 million Golden Shaheen, the one American victory of the night by Kinsale King. It was shocking that he was the only American starter in that event. This is the first year that the race, previously run at six furlongs on a straightaway, was contested around a turn, better suiting American-trained horses. Americans sprinters have run well in Dubai (California Flag was beaten only a length in this year’s Al Quoz Sprint), taking nine of the last ten runnings of the Golden Shaheen. But that fact, on top of the $2 million purse, obviously wasn’t enough for Americans to send their horses to run on Tapeta on the richest night of racing. I’m certain that at least some American owners and trainers were regretting that decision at the sight of trainer Carl O’Callaghan jumping up and down for joy and holding his head in disbelief over his first Grade I victory. If other Americans were scared away by the new Tapeta surface, O’Callaghan embraced it by sending the horse to prep at Golden Gate Fields, one of the few Tapeta courses in the U.S. Hopefully, next year more Americans will take advantage of this opportunity.
Before the start of the World Cup, Meydan put on what can only be considered horse racing’s version of a Super Bowl half-time show. Rows of sails depicting a fleet of ships released hundreds of white balloons into the air, making the entire sky bubble like champagne. Planes shooting fire whizzed by over the grandstand. A dancer suspended from a hot-air balloon gracefully contorted her body while flying at startling heights. And around the entire nine-furlong track, streams of fire shot into the sky.
After it was certain that everyone in the crowd was awake, the horses emerged for the big race. The paddock was a whirlwind of activity and anticipation. Sheikh Mohammed and his entourage seemed to glide over the grass with a crowd of cameramen in pursuit. Horsemen mingled, the jockeys mounted, journalists scribbled notes, and cameras shuttered. A buzz of excitement hung in the night air.
Before we knew it, they were off. Gloria de Campeao, whose name means “Glorious Champion,” raced to an early lead and prevailed in a thrilling photo finish with Lizard’s Desire. Many people in the crowd, including Lizard’s Desire’s jockey Kevin Shea, who pumped his fist in celebration after crossing the finish line, thought that the Mike de Kock-trained longshot had won it. The third time was a charm for Gloria de Campeao, eighth to Curlin in 2008 and second to Well Armed last year. My race pick, Godolphin-trained Allybar, ran a great race, finishing third by a head.
After the races were over and the trophies presented, there was a magnificent fireworks display. Fireworks shot from the infield like a pyromaniac on acid, until the sky was a softly-hued cloud of smoke. An intermission of light beams and graphics provided enough time for the smoke to dissipate, and then, naturally, there were even more fireworks. The combined experience exists nowhere else in the world but Dubai.
As an American attending the Dubai World Cup, people are prone to ask about the differences between racing here and racing over there. The lack of betting is naturally one of the major differences between Dubai and American racing. But I’m more interested in what that implies. Because of this, crowds don’t attend races for the money or for the thrill of taking chances. They come for the sport itself. For those minutes in between the starting gate and the finish line. For the air of heaven that blows between a horse’s ears, as the Arabic proverb says.
When asked about the winning purse, Gloria de Campeao’s trainer Pascal Bary said, “At the moment, I don’t speak money, I speak horses.” On that night, at that racecourse, with a certain sense of reverence in the air, it was all about the horses. It is for this reason, not just the opulence and the grandiose presentation, that I believe Dubai racing is the richest in the world. Here it truly is the Sport of Kings.
To read Mandy’s other guest blogs on Hangin’ with Haskin, you can go to the following links: