DUBAI // The prestigious horse-racing calendar will saddle up in the city as planned, officials announced yesterday, settling fears that unfinished construction at Nad al Sheba would move events elsewhere. The future of the racing season had been unclear, as the Nad al Sheba complex closed immediately after the Dubai World Cup in March. But officials announced that work on the Dh4.8 billion (US$1.3b) Meydan complex would finish before Jan 28, when the Dubai Racing Carnival begins.
The announcement was especially significant because the delays had risked the loss of tens of millions of dirhams normally injected into Dubai's economy by tourists who come for the races. It is the latest indication of a gradual turnaround for the local economy. The traditional Winter Racing Challenge will be dropped. But all the same, the Dubai trainer Mike de Kock described the announcement as "mission accomplished for the Al Maktoum family".
"This is important because the Jan 28 date really gives trainers something to aim at," said Frank Gabriel Jr, the chief executive of the Dubai Racing Club. "Right now [it] is the official start of the 2010 racing calendar." Racing will begin with the Group Three Al Maktoum Challenge for thoroughbreds and the Group One equivalent for purebred Arabians. The Dubai World Cup, with its $10m in prize money, will be held on March 27 at the 60,000-seat Meydan, built at Nad al Sheba.
Announced in 2007, Meydan will include two tracks, a 2,400-metre turf track outside a 1,750-metre all-weather track, the all-important surface material of which will be announced in a matter of weeks. Other facilities include a five-star hotel, six haute cuisine restaurants, an IMAX cinema and a museum. The planned horse-racing city will not be complete by Jan 28, however. "The wider Meydan outside the grandstand is all part of the development, and it was never the goal to have that completed at the same time," Gabriel said. "That will all come later."
Fears over the opening date of the complex were compounded after contracts with Arabtec, the developer, and WCT, the engineering firm, were cancelled in January with 70 per cent of the work complete. Construction has since restarted, with both firms back on board. The Meydan Chairman Saeed Humaid al Tayer confirmed racing facilities will be completed by Oct 31. "By having it ready in October, all horsemen, whether they are Dubai-based or visitors from abroad, will have time to familiarise themselves with the facility to ensure they are prepared to compete to the highest standard when racing begins," Mr al Tayer said.
"That's a relief," Mr de Kock said yesterday from England, where he is preparing his sprinter, JJ The Jet Plane, for the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. "Meydan was always going to be on the biggest and best scale, and there is a lot of excitement about it. The facilities are going to make training far easier, and the improved tracks will give trainers more confidence to bring their best horses to Dubai."
De Kock says the $10m in prize money for the Dubai World Cup also will tempt racers to the UAE. "The prize money on offer is quite simply mind boggling," he said. "The Maktoum family set out with the aim of making Dubai a serious and major racing destination and with these facilities and the prize money it is definitely mission accomplished for the Maktoums." The UAE jockey Ahmed Ajtebi is anticipating the inaugural event more than most.
Ajtebi was the first Emirati to win a race on World Cup night this year, when he rode Gladiatorus to victory in the Group One $5m Dubai Duty Free. "From my side, I have a dream that I will not just be the first Emirati jockey to win a race at Meydan, but I will be the first jockey, full stop," he said. "I am from the country, and it would be the highlight of my career. The first race will probably be an Arabian race on the night, so I will have to see which trainers will give me a ride."