DUBAI // If you had one day to capture a sense of Dubai, then no more vivid an experience can be had than by spending that day at the Dubai World Cup. Few events capture the grand ambition better; not so much a melting pot as a convenient taste of the entire world inside one giant, magnificent structure.
They began congregating at Meydan Racecourse early in the day, the diehards before noon, the fashionable thereafter and in excess of 20,000 all told.
Not all of them were there strictly for the racing. Certainly, in the Apron Views area, if it was a carnival of humanity, it was as much a giant carnival of hats.
One of the earliest arrivals and entrants into the vigorously contested fashion stakes was Katharina Dietrich, who was bedecked in what is best described as a UAE-inspired creation that she had flown from Germany specially - as she has for the last three years.
She designed the outfit, stitched from the colours of the UAE flag, herself. "It took six hours to make but much longer to get the materials together," she said, umbrella in hand, horse-inspired hat on head. "For this, it's worth it."
For the real race-day feel, however, the general stands were the place to be. This is where the hard-core racegoers were. Inside the building before the first race, little clusters sat around studiously marking out race cards. It was something akin to a mixture of airport terminal and examination hall - with a little carnival thrown in.
The Sudanese, who are among the most avid and well-versed race watchers in the UAE, held sway: offering tips to anyone who cared to ask. Others walked around discreetly, like they knew precisely who was going to win each race but wouldn't let it slip.
In the background, a drumming group with dancers on stilts provided an appropriate and restless beat. In any case, it built up the mood better than Bon Jovi outside. Dancing behind them was the ubiquitous Abdul-Rahman Osman, the race scene's celebrity fan. He wears his top hat and robes to every race, covered with badges of the UAE flags.
Ultimately though, at the races, one eye must be kept on the hats. By the time the Kahayla Classic ended, the most creative hat of the day had been identified. Strictly speaking, the winner and runners-up were not wearing hats. The winner "wore" a horse on her head and the runners-up, the Burj Khalifa.
"They're hats made out of hair," said Katie Harvey, the mastermind of both creations. "The horse is a tribute to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and, for the other, we wanted a local tribute. So the Burj it was."
The designing took three weeks and the wearers had been sat since 8am, having done trial runs all week. "They look heavier on the head than they are but they are very secure," Ms Harvey said.
Briefly, a sombre air descended around the stands as Fox Hunt stumbled and fell and the Gold Cup race had to be stopped. Genuine concern filtered through the stands though the mood lightened soon enough and the business of racing and hats wheeled into action again.
It was the first time at the World Cup for Takegi Katakura, who has been in Dubai for two years. He arrived in a traditional yukata kimono and, had he entered the Best Dressed Man category, victory surely would have been his.
"I'm too shy for that," he confessed. He was here to watch Yutaka Take, the jockey who was riding Smart Falcon in the evening's last race, the World Cup. The outfit, he said, was his attempt at introducing "a bit of Japan into Dubai".
Too late, given that the entire world is already here.