Frank Gabriel received a culture shock when he was appointed the chief executive of the Dubai Racing Club in 2005.
For 30 years he had toiled in North America. He worked as the racing secretary in Atlantic City, the less glamorous gambling destination to Las Vegas. He also worked at Arlington Park, Chicago, where he oversaw racing for six days a week, for five months solid, working with up to 2,000 stabled horses and over 140 trainers.
And yet his remit in the UAE extended to just 10 consecutive weeks of racing during the Dubai International Racing Carnival and Dubai World Cup night.
"I would say the first year here was a little slow paced for me," Gabriel said. "When you race for twenty-something weeks straight, it's a bit of a grind. You've just got to get through mentally a long haul like that."
If Gabriel found the workload in Dubai lighter, it certainly was no less demanding. Organising the Carnival and the world's richest race night may have had another tempo, but the beat still went on.
"There's a different atmosphere when you come here with fewer horsemen, horses and racing one day a week," Gabriel said. "It was hard to relax, but here you can spend more time on detail. It's similar when the Carnival starts, however, because it has a fast pace, with 10 nights of great racing. It rekindles what I had in North America."
This year, the Dubai International Racing Carnival, which starts tonight at Meydan Racecourse, offers over US$37million (Dh237,022) in total prize-money. The Dubai World Cup, staged this year on March 26, boasts a purse that rewards the winner to the tune of $10m. The 10-furlong contest acts as a cornerstone to a night's racing that gives away a staggering $26.25m to the connections of the seven victorious thoroughbreds.
Gabriel prefers to concentrate on the increased quality of racing in Dubai. Gone are the days when foreign trainers saw the Carnival as a lucrative winter jolly, because since the Carnival's inception in 2004 the races now carry real kudos.
Over a third of all the Carnival's races are black-type contests; races which are of Listed status or higher.
The UAE Black Type Committee upgraded seven of the races for this season, four to Group 2 status, and also came within an ace of upgrading the Group 2 Dubai City of Gold, run during Super Thursday on March 3, to the Carnival's first Group 1 contest for thoroughbreds.
Last season, Godolphin's Campanologist won the City Of Gold off an official rating of 115. In 2009, Front Of House scored for Mike de Kock off 110, while in 2008, when the race was a Group 3, Gower Song was victorious off 104.
Campanologist and Front Of House used the City Of Gold as a springboard for tilts at World Cup night races, and, while both were unsuccessful, it shows a growing trend for horses to take in a race in the UAE before straining every sinew on the biggest stage of them all.
Last year, Gio Ponti came fourth in the World Cup behind the Pascal Bary-trained Gloria De Campeao, having never run in the UAE.
Connections of the six-year-old have confirmed they will come to Dubai in mid-February, before another run in the World Cup. Racing at Meydan Racecourse is on an upward curve and is also at forefront of the sport's globalisation.
Gloria De Campeao was the first of the 15 winners of the Dubai World Cup not to have been trained in North America, nor by Godolphin. Although the success of that French-trained thoroughbred may have highlighted Meydan's ability to open up and strengthen new markets, at the same time the racecourse has complicated the relationship with North America, a traditional supporter of UAE racing.
Due to Meydan's Tapeta surface, several North American trainers have ruled out further raids on the World Cup, as most of them race on dirt. Bennie Wolley, the Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, said after the World Cup last year: "I think it is detrimental to the world programme that Dubai have gone with synthetic. It rules out dirt horses from the mix, and I think that it will stem the tide of American horses for the foreseeable future."
Unsurprisingly, it is an argument that Gabriel refutes strongly. "We made a decision with Tapeta," he said. "We looked at safety for horses, and we need to have a playing field that is going to be used by every country, every horse, whether it is a dirt horse, turf horse, or a synthetic horse.
"We thought that this was our best tool to get a universal deal for the World Cup and the other races that we run on the all-weather. It has been a successful decision, the surface has been competitive, and it has produced quality finishes."
The horses for this year's Carnival hail from a record 27 countries - yet only four are from North America.
On the flip side, a number of Japanese trainers, including Yoshitaka Ninomiya, trainer of Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe runner-up Nakayama Festa, visited the facilities at Meydan last year in order to ascertain whether it was viable to send their horses over to compete for the first time. Meydan's global brand is strengthening and Gabriel hints at a glorious future.
"We want to get more countries participating; countries such as China, India and Turkey," he said.
"I am sure China is going to be a great supporter of racing with their economy, their population, and their interest to get racing to the next level. Those are all great avenues for us to increase our awareness in world racing. I am sure down the road those relationships will start to develop."
World Cup entries finalised
The free nominations to the Dubai World Cup card run at Meydan Racecourse on March 26 were finalised yesterday. Dubai World Cup night features the US$10m (Dh36.7m) Dubai World Cup, run over ten furlongs, while there are three further Group 1 races – the 12-furlong Dubai Sheema Classic, the Dubai Duty Free, both worth $5m, and the Dubai Golden Shaheen, run over six furlongs. The Al Quoz Sprint also features on the card, and is one of four races this season that has been upgraded in status to a Group 2. Overall, there is $26.25m on offer on the night to the seven thoroughbred winners. Details of the entrants will be available next week.