Dubai and Burj Khalifa.

Turning sand into GOLD

in the UAE

Author: Mats Genberg Photo: Frank Sorge, Trevor Jones, Andrew Watkins, Nils Rosenkjaer

Twenty-five years ago, the United Arab Emirates was like a desert flower in the sand waiting patiently for the rain to make it blossom. In 1996, the wait ended. This is the story of how horse racing helped create a metropolis.

Sheikh Mohammed watches the final preparation of the great Dubai Millenium at the Godolphin private exercise facility in March, 2000. The Dubai city skyline is still in its infancy. Photo: Trevor Jones.
Sheikh Mohammed watches the final preparation of the great Dubai Millenium at the Godolphin
private exercise facility in March, 2000. The Dubai city skyline is still in its infancy. Photo: Trevor Jones.

Driving on the legendary Sheikh Zayed Road leading out of Dubai toward Abu Dhabi, the capital of the country, used to be a fascinating spectacle of skyscraper-watching 10 years ago. Now, many of the buildings that were awe inspiring then are just extras in the big show. Today’s star is the 828-meter tall Burj Khalifa—the world’s tallest building—not to mention the man-made palm-shaped peninsula “The Palm” and the new Manhattan-sized Dubai Marina development.

Wherever you go, you will see billboards for upcoming shows by major bands, future mega sporting events and car dealers selling million dollar sports cars. And of course, there are also new developments in every size, shape and color you can imagine. Luxury. Party. More of everything.

The key was to put a golden lining on the desert, and this is where horse racing came into the picture.

Contrary to popular belief, however, all of this is not just the result of oil money. Even though Dubai has oil, the volumes are small compared to neighboring Abu Dhabi. While many know, many others don’t realize that Dubai is not a country. Rather, Dubai is one of seven emirates, or “states” that make up the country the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The capital of this state is also called Dubai, but the capital of the country is the city of Abu Dhabi, which is about a 90 minute drive from Dubai. Abu Dhabi is also the name of the biggest of the seven emirates.

The ruling Maktoum family of Dubai soon realized that money doesn’t come out of a tap forever and that other sources of revenue were needed. Dubai is geographically strategically located in the perfect junction between Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. With sunshine and space in abundance, promoting tourism, trade and luxury were natural and—as it turned out—very wise choices.

Dubai World Cup (Photo: Annika af Klercker)

But what was it that made Dubai stand out and become the benchmark place it now is? How did they get all the stars and businesspeople of the world to want to go to what was then just a small coastal town in the desert? The key was to put a golden lining on the desert, and this is where horse racing came into the picture. Dubai used horse racing as a way to build its brand.

When the current ruler of Dubai—Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum—was young, he was sent to England to study at Cambridge and came to live with a family who had a big interest in horse racing. He used to remind his hosts that the most influential foundation sire of the Thoroughbred in Britain was an Arab stallion by the name of Godolphin Arabian. Along with the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk, those three stallions became the founding fathers of the Thoroughbred breed in the 1700s. Today, Godolphin is the name of Sheikh Mohammed’s racing stables, while one of the other stallions gave his breeding operation, Darley, its name.

Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Sheikh Hamdan first went racing in 1967 in Newmarket. Ten years later, Sheik Mohammed had his first international success with the filly Hatta. His interest grew year by year and became an industrial scale investment. In 1985, his filly Pebbles won the Breeder’s Cup Turf in America, while  Oh So Sharp won the British Fillies’ Triple Crown by taking the 1,000 Guineas, Epsom Oaks and St Leger.

Since then, members of the family have been leading owners in many of the major racing countries in the world. They also own major stud farms in England, France, Ireland, Australia, the United States, and Japan. At every major sale in the world, you are also likely to see Maktoum-representatives bidding for the very best horses.

Over the years, the family has spent billions on horses, and as soon as Sheikh Mohammed’s Boeing 747 lands at a nearby airport, consignors know that the chance for a high price has increased.

Horse racing has been an important part of the Arabian culture since the days of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. In the UAE, the modern version of the sport was already becoming popular in the 1970s. Pat Buckley, who won England’s 1963 Grand National as a jockey, was there in those days. Today, he is the racing manager of the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club.

“There were small tracks around the country in those days,” Pat says. “Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai all had facilities and we would race at birthdays and holidays as a way of celebrating. However, we never had any real rules or conditions. There were races both for Purebred Arabians and for Thoroughbreds, and sometimes you would mix the two breeds in one race.”

In the early 1990s all that changed. After having won most of the major races in the world, Sheikh Mohammed decided the time had come for Dubai to be part of the top level of horse racing. Nad Al Sheba had been built in Dubai in 1986, then Jebel Ali opened outside of Dubai in 1990. A year after that, Abu Dhabi saw its first public races.

It was in 1992, however, that it all broke lose. A number of English trainers were invited to Dubai to train the sheikh’s horses on very favorable terms, but nobody seemed to care much for the idea. “What will they eat? Sand?” one of them asked skeptically.

There have been many reasons to regret that attitude. The Brits went home, and Sheikh Mohammed appointed a local former police officer to train Godolphin’s horses. His name was Saeed bin Suroor, and he has now won more than 150 Group races all over the world. He has also been named Britain’s champion trainer four times. Today, Dubai and the UAE are frequented by many of the world’s top trainers, and there is little doubt about the horse’s feed.

At the same time this was going on, the Emirates Racing Authority was founded and a rulebook was written. Only four years later it was time for the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup. The best dirt horse of the time—Cigar—was flown in to run in the $4 million race. Cigar, America’s reigning Horse of the Year, won, and since that day the world of horse racing world has not been the same.

In the 20 years that have passed since then, Dubai has gone from being a novelty in the racing world to becoming one of the true centers of global racing, with facilities in a class of their own and races that attract the very best horses from all over the world. The Dubai World Cup, which quickly attained Group 1 status, is now worth $10 million and is by far the richest race in the world, making it a key ingredient in giving Dubai the status it has achieved in the metropolises of the world. In 2010, the ultra luxurious Meydan replaced Nad Al Sheba as Dubai’s track.

Horse racing attracts the world’s rich and famous, and having a horse run in the Dubai World Cup is a dream for many of the most powerful people in the world. It is a bit like having your name on a Formula 1 car in Monaco.

Dubai World Cup day takes place on the last Saturday in March, and the total purse for the nine races in 2016 is an unbelievable $30 million. The winner of the Dubai World Cup itself walks home with $6 million. With 10% to the jockey, that means that the jockey’s share alone exceeds the total money to the winner in most of the world’s Group 1 races.

In order to make Dubai an even bigger part of the global racing scene, there is also the Dubai Racing Carnival. It is a three-month long racing party, where invited trainers and horses from all over the world spend their winters far away from the rain, snow and mud found in Europe and the U.S., as well as the scorching summer sun of the southern hemisphere. The horses are flown in free-of-charge, provided they run in a minimum of two races while they are in Dubai. It is a creative way of making sure that the quality of racing is high and that there is continued interest from all over the world.

All of this has helped in getting “the right people” to the emirate: people who not only want to enjoy the luxury hotels and restaurants but are also interested in investing in the region. International horse racing is like a giant cocktail party for people with money and passion. Those are just the kind of people Sheikh Mohammed wants to see as investors in his project.

His city. His Dubai.

This story was published in Gallop Magazine, Winter 2015.

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