Known as the world’s richest horse race, with a US$10 million prize for the winning horse, the Dubai World Cup returns to Meydan Racecourse in Nad Al Sheba on Saturday March 26. The UAE has long been home to some of the world’s best racehorses – as well as attending and entering the Dubai World Cup, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, is a major figure in international thoroughbred racing and breeding. This year’s event at Meydan will once again be a world event, with horses competing from locations as far-flung as Japan, America and Ireland.
Then, of course, the city’s most glamorous folk will engage in some competition of their own as the men dust off their suits and hats and the ladies don new fascinators in a bid to be the best dressed. Whether you’re an equestrian or anthropology enthusiast, the World Cup remains one of Dubai’s most unmissable events. Here we head behind the scenes of Meydan’s stables, and make sure you have all the info you need to have a memorable World Cup 2016. Tally ho!
Not everyone's Sunday begins with Frankie Dettori's underpants being waved at them from the end of a riding crop ...
Before you get any untoward notions, we should point out that this particular encounter with a world-renowned jockey’s pair of Hugo Boss briefs took place during a behind-the-scenes tour of Meydan’s Millennium Stables and grandstand (including the jockeys’ changing room). We seized the last chance to tour the complex before it closes for final preparations for the race, which, when we visit, is a frighteningly close two weeks away. Fortunately, the craftsmen and other ground staff seem to be getting stuck into the many tasks at hand – large Emirates banners and logos are being affixed to escalators, small stages are being dismantled and reassembled on the lawns in front of the racecourse, and old paint is being stripped to make way for new on the walls outside.
But that's all in the grandstand. The first part of the visit takes place at the Millennium Stables. We're told by Brett Williams, the 29-year-old producer and presenter for Dubai Racing Channel (and part-time tour guide at Meydan) that the stables’ name comes from the fact it was built in 2000. Here, the scene is very different and the atmosphere much more relaxed, at least until the horses get wind of the feed being brought through the stables and the whinnying picks up by several decibels.
At any given time, the 12 different stables on site can house up to 600 beasts and, though many of the horses for the Dubai World Cup are yet to arrive at the time of my tour, there are a number of thoroughbred and Arabian horses in the stables. These are here for the World Cup Carnival race meetings that have taken place in the run-up to the big event. Each animal is labelled with its father and mother’s names, as well as its own, along with its colour, gender and year of birth. As it’s still cool, the doors to the stables are open, allowing a pleasant breeze to filter through the building, but doing nothing to stop the creeping, itching sensation in the eyes, throat and nose – ah, hay fever.
Peering into the accommodation of one horse as Brett draws attention to its main feature – the walls are made of a softer material, so that if a horse gets stuck lying on its side, it can use the wall to kick its way back up without damaging its hooves.
Outside, we’re shown the exercise pool. ‘It’s good for cooling off, but it’s also effective if they have tendon problems,’ Brett explains of the freshwater stretch. ‘You can’t get their fitness back up to 100 per cent with it, but you can get them between 75 and 80 per cent.’
Around the corner lies the hay store, a windowless facility that’s kept cool to preserve the quality of the grass. ‘All the hay comes from Canada, and it’s very good quality,’ explains Ivan Pavlovsky, the facility’s Argentinian in-house assistant trainer and a qualified vet. ‘It arrives in a shipping container, and as soon as you open that the humidity and moisture get in, so we order a full container each time and keep it all in here.’
He explains that while each horse can get through between four and five kilos a day, they’re very fussy and won’t touch anything that’s poor quality or contaminated. He also notes that horses are very good at preserving energy from food, so trainers will often reduce their intake 24 hours before a competition to help make them lighter for the day of the race.
After a short bus ride back to the human quarters in the grandstand, we take a peek inside the owners and trainers’ lounge, a private room overlooking the racecourse, before heading down another escalator and stopping at a wall displaying pictures of the winners each year. Here, Brett tells us a story from a past Dubai World Cup.
‘In 1997, it rained on the day of the World Cup, so HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum flew all of his helicopters onto the track to dry it. The track was dried and they ran the race the next day, and Sheikh Mohammed’s horse won.’
After a stroll through the jockeys’ changing room, poking our noses into cupboards and pondering what all the talcum powder and baby oil is for (chafing, one member of our group suspects), we mosey through the empty main entrance hall.
It’s hard to imagine it heaving with glamorous and flamboyantly attired men and women as it has been before and will this weekend. Everyone will be on their best behaviour, which means – fortunately or not, depending on your point of view – the chance of having a pair of Hugo Boss briefs waved in your face this Saturday is almost zero. At the races, anyway.