Behind the scenes at the world's richest horse race
Organising an international sporting event is a little like completing a jigsaw: multiple pieces of the puzzle must slot together to ensure everything runs seamlessly. Local horse-racing event the Dubai World Cup is no different. On Saturday March 30, tens of thousands of people from all over the world will descend on Meydan Racecourse to watch the world’s top horses compete for prize money of more than Dhs36 million.
Last year Dubai ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s horse Monterosso, from the famed Godolphin stables, galloped across the finish line in first place. This year he – and 15 other horses from a variety of stables – will be aiming for glory, says British rider Ross Birkett, who is responsible for exercising horses in Dubai for UK trainer Mick Channon. ‘No horse has won the Dubai World Cup twice, so Monterosso will be trying to bid for that,’ he says.
The 23-year-old jockey flies out to the UAE each winter in the run-up to the Dubai World Cup Carnival to put the horses through their paces, six days a week. ‘We start every morning at 6am. We put the saddles on the horses, give them a brush and take them up to the Meydan track,’ he explains. ‘They’re generally out for about an hour. The setup’s quite good because the stables are about 2km from the actual track, so we can get them loosened up and do some faster work around the track itself, then there’s a nice 20-minute walk to cool down on the way back.’
So what exactly is involved in preparing a horse for an event as grandiose as the Dubai World Cup? ‘By now, most of the horses will be as fit as a trainer could get them in their home countries, so maybe they’ll have had a race two weeks before they fly out here,’ says Birkett. And how does a racehorse travel? ‘They have a stable on the plane: a crate with bedding, hay and water. About 30 horses are lifted into the plane through the side and lined up. There’s a group of travelling grooms, about ten on a flight, to check that every horse is okay.’ Birkett says it’s also important to keep up the horses’ routine and get as much fluid into them as possible during the 24 hours after they land. ‘They get their feed flown over with them. The most crucial bit is keeping them eating, because if they’re not eating, they’re not getting any fuel to fire up the engines, so to speak,’ he says.
On the opposite side of the track, one of the most iconic parts of Dubai World Cup, other than the race itself, is the fashion. Melbourne-based milliner Kim Fletcher has been crafting artful headpieces since 1993: she started by taking a hat-making course for fun and never looked back. This is now her 12th year making hats for race-goers. ‘Dubai World Cup is different because it’s a day-to-night meeting, so some ladies want diamantes or shiny pieces on their hat because they work really well with the big lights around the track,’ says Fletcher. Each piece, she says, takes a minimum of ten hours of work by hand, over at least three days. ‘We send some hats before the day, obviously, but I can’t take my equipment with me, so it’s pretty frantic at the moment.’
Fletcher says headpieces and fascinators are still the most popular styles. ‘You won’t find many hats with rims and crowns – it’s more along the lines of headpieces, but they’re quite elaborate and take as much time to make as a traditional hat,’ she says. She also underlines the imperative to source quality fabric. ‘I look for materials that are a little different. I found some synthetic fabric in Satwa, so we have a Dubai flavour in our hats this season.’
Finally, the glue holding the entire event together is the venue itself, with Austrian hotel manager Ademir Husagic holding the reins at Meydan Hotel. ‘We’re expecting about 85,000 to 90,000 people in the whole complex: the hotel and the grandstand,’ he explains. ‘We have to look at security and extra staff, plus all the VIP preparations, so the prep starts in January.’ Husagic explains that the hotel team has meetings every second or third day to get updates on who’s attending, the rooming list and any small issues within the hotel. ‘The hotel is expecting 600 guests, plus another 600 spectators in the restaurants and, will be running at 100 percent occupancy.’ So how many meals will be dished up on the day itself? ‘We’ll serve about 3,000 meals within the hotel, but together with the grandstand, there will be about 15,000,’ he says. ‘Every year we’re getting more experience and everything goes more smoothly.’
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Godolphin ‘The final field for the Dubai World Cup is still to be confirmed, although Godolphin – the race stable owned by Dubai ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum – will again be a major force, having won the second round of the Al Maktoum Challenge with Hunter’s Light. Godolphin also has the 2012 winner, Monterosso, who came third in 2011, so handles the course very well. His programme towards the race this year mirrors that of 2012. He has a great chance to become the first horse to win consecutive Dubai World Cups.’
US challengers ‘The Americans will be represented strongly, with Royal Delta, Dullahan, 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, and Breeders’ Cup winner Little Mike. But the majority of American racing is done on dirt – the move to Meydan and the Tapeta turf surface means the race has opened up.’
Winners ‘It’s difficult to predict this far out, but as it stands now I’m going with Dullahan first, Animal Kingdom second and Royal Delta third.’
Essential event info
Gates open at 2pm on Saturday March 30, and the first race starts at 4.30pm. There are eight races in the run-up to the World Cup, which begins at 10.05pm. Tickets range from Dhs25 for general admission to Dhs30,000 for a table of ten in the hospitality suite. Badges must be collected before the day, from the office between gates B and C of Meydan Grandstand. www.dubairacingclub.com (04 327 2110)