*This article first appeared in Time Out Dubai in 2015
When US-born horse trainer Doug Watson came to Dubai in 1993, the world was unaware of the UAE’s passion for equestrian sports. Now, the world is coming to Dubai for the richest (Dhs110m) thoroughbred horse racing event in existance.
In his 21 years of training the animals in the UAE, Watson has seen the sport flourish. A number of his horses have won big at the Abu Dhabi Championship (the end of season meet in the capital) and the Al Maktoum Challenge – a series of three races during the Dubai World Cup Carnival, of which the third round leads to the Dubai World Cup. Although a win at the Dubai World Cup still eludes him, he is optimistic that his horses could bring home the prize this year. We met ahead of the Dubai World Cup, at The Red Stables in Business Bay, where he and his team train more than 80 horses. In his tidy office, with cabinets full of trophies and walls adorned with photos of past victories, the trainer shares his memories.
How did you arrive at this career path?
A childhood friend and his father owned a farm where I lived in Ohio and we would take care of the horses. I later went to college and got a degree in finance, and got a job for six months. I hated it, so decided to give horse training a shot. My parents weren’t too happy, but I went and got a job as a hot walker [a handler responsible for taking the horse for a walk after the race, to help it cool down] at Arlington International Racecourse, Illinois, and worked my way up. In 1993 Satish Seemar’s [Dubai-based champion trainer, who was the first UAE-based trainer to win a race in Europe] assistant asked if I would like to come and work with him in Dubai. So I said I’d give it a shot for a year and, 21 years later, I’m still here. I worked with Seemar for three years and was offered a job with Kiaran McLaughlin [a leading trainer in North America] who used to train horses at Red Stables and I took that opportunity.
What was your first impression of the industry in Dubai and how did it compare to the US?
At the time the industry was pretty small. There were just a few trainers and the fields weren’t very big but it was competitive. In the States, when you work at a track there are 1,500 horses and nine races a day, five days a week. In the UAE, we were racing about three days a week, mainly at Nad Al Sheba, Jebel Ali, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in racing in 21 years?
I’ve seen it grow from hosting small jockey’s challenges, and races with a few local riders, to the Dubai World Cup, with horses and riders from around the the world. I’ve seen a parade of great horses come in, run and win here. The building of Meydan Grandstand and racetrack was also a huge change to the racing scene as a racing facility.
How long does it take to get a horse ready for an event like the Dubai World Cup?
It depends on the horse, but to get it to go from zero to a race takes around three months.
Which has been your all-time favourite horse to train?
Barbecue Eddie. He’s won about six or seven races and won our first Al Maktoum Challenge in January 2013. It was great for the stable and that win was my biggest achievement so far as a trainer. He was pretty special. We’d had him for about five years, and he’s now retired to Shadwell Estates in England. He was a star.
What is the best thing about being a trainer?
Winning races. You know how much time and effort goes into getting a horse ready and then to win the race, especially as you get into winning the bigger races, is such a thrill.
And the downside?
Horses getting injured and not being able to run anymore. It’s part of the game, but we try to eliminate that as much as possible, but that’s the hardest part.
What should people look for in a horse before it races?
For me as a trainer, I like to see them a little calmer, not sweating up too much, maybe a little on their toes, anticipating the work ahead but saying in control of themselves. Some really good horses walk around there like they’re asleep, but it’s business once they hit the track.
What will you be doing on World Cup night?
My dad and my sister are coming this year so they’ll keep me grounded. I get very nervous, especially if I think my horses have a chance at winning.