Nad Al Sheba may have had its swansong season and the new Meydan course isn’t scheduled to open until next year, but race days continue at Jebel Ali Racecourse and Abu Dhabi. Pat Buchanan, who has spent two decades organising horse races at Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club, tells us how the sport has grown in the emirates.
How did racing start in the UAE? I joined 20 years ago; I was the originator of the first meeting here. Back then, it was pretty basic – we had a lot of horses but they weren’t racehorses really. They were beautiful Arabians and a few thoroughbreds, but they weren’t designed for racing. Nor was the track. In the 1970s, the club was designed as a riding school – they’d only have races on National Day and Eid. The locals would have a few gallops, but it wasn’t professional. They put a small track in during the early ’70s. It was circular; there was grass but it was pretty hard. Think Ben Hur. There was little irrigation.
What’s it like now? The first organised race was held in 1991, and in the ‘92/’93 season everything was legitimised. We now have a fibre-turf track. There’s a lot of give in it and it takes more maintaining that a newborn baby. We’re members of the International Horseracing Conference and have upwards of 100 runners each meet. If a guy is suspended here, it’s reciprocal anywhere in the world and every winner is dope tested.
What kind of horses race? We’re different from Dubai; we race predominantly Arabian horses. They are a different breed. It was the late HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s love of Arabian horses that started it all. Whereas we would have five races for Arabian horses and one race for thoroughbreds at a meeting, Dubai would have the opposite.
Are Arabian horses quicker? No, but they are probably more tenacious. The races aren’t by any means longer, but we do have endurance racing up to 160km.
Who races? Around 80 per cent of the jockeys are from the UK. In the emirates we only have one national rider, Ahmed Ajtebi. He rides in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and rode a winner at San Siro in Italy recently.
What’s race day like? It gets pretty busy. With feature races including the National Day Cup (December 2) or the President’s Cup, we can get up to 5,000 people. And what you wear depends on which area you’re in. If you’re in the VIP area you’re in fairly smart dress anyway, but elsewhere you don’t have to be so smart.
The next race at Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club is on November 22. Jebel Ali Racecourse’s next meet is on November 20. For a full calendar of events at both venues, see www.emiratesracing.com.
The form book
UAE racing commentator Terry Spago tells us how to pick an Arabian winner.
‘You’re basically looking for the same thing in Arabian horses that you would look for in thoroughbreds: a fit horse. Early in the season, horses are not going to be fully wound up so it could lead to some surprise winners. Look for muscle definition, a healthy coat and bright eyes. The Al Reef stable always has a strong hand in Arabian racing; also Abu Dhabi-based trainer Rod Simpson, who trained Fryvolous (winner of last year’s Dubai Classic). These are two stables that are always worth looking out for.’