In the autumn of 1995 a tug-of-war broke out over one of the greatest racehorses of all time, Cigar. Threatened by the idea that Dubai had the temerity to lure the American wonder horse for the inaugural running of the World Cup the following year, US racing officials took dramatic action.
In an effort to trump Dubai's US$4 million (Dh14.67m) purse, several California tracks clubbed together, alongside the entertainment company MGM, in an effort to persuade Allen Paulson, Cigar's owner, to continue racing his horse in the US and not run it in a "small state somewhere in the [Arabian] Gulf".
Cigar had won 12 successive races and was a precious commodity. So enamoured with America's Horse of the Year was Jerry Bailey, the jockey, that he went on record to say that if the incomparable racehorse were sent to run on the moon, he would follow it there. Immediately, Bill Mott, Cigar's trainer, quipped: "Get ready, because Dubai is halfway."
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Cigar, of course, made the 13,000km trip and won the race, which is staged for the 16th time tonight. The Dubai World Cup has become integrated into the world racing programme, and the race is now worth $10m - $6m to the winner. It is the feature event on a night when a total of $26.25m can be won.
But is there more to the Dubai World Cup than a giant pot of gold?
Each major racing nation holds its own all-aged international championship race: France stages the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Japan has the Japan Cup; England boasts the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes; America hosts the Breeders' Cup Classic; China has the Hong Kong Cup.
The Dubai World Cup has surpassed them all in prize money and also compares favourably in the quality of the racing.
Horses are assigned a rating for their performance in each race, and those numbers are useful in comparing the quality of races.
In winning the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes last July by 11 lengths from Cape Blanco, Harbinger received a rating of 140 - one of the 10 best performances of the past 67 years, according to Timeform, a respected English ratings service. Over the past decade, the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes repeatedly has thrown up performances that rank it as the highest-quality contest of all those considered. (See charts at right.)
The Dubai World Cup lies fourth among the six races considered, behind the King George, the Arc and the Breeders' Cup Classic in terms of quality of performance. The Arc and King George have existed for 91 years and 60 years, respectively, and boast prestige that can be gained only over time. The Breeders' Cup began fairly recently, in 1984, and is already considered by some to be the world championship of racing.
Illustrating the hope that the Dubai World Cup one day can usurp the Breeders' Cup Classic in performance is that three horses have won both races in the past decade and all of them - Curlin, Invasor, and Pleasantly Perfect - had to better their Timeform rating from the US race to win here.
Although money will always be a draw for certain owners, prestige offers added value when it comes to breeding. Some races in Europe boast histories going back centuries; it is Ascot's 300-year anniversary this summer and the best horses have been running there since Queen Anne made space for them.
"The Dubai World Cup is gaining in prestige as some of the best horses in the world are taking part in it," said Henry Cecil, who trains the Khalid Abdullah-owned colt Twice Over, considered the favourite in tonight's big race.
"The more the Dubai World Cup is better-contested by the world's top horses, the higher the prestige will be. For instance, the Nell Gwyn [run in April at Newmarket] is only a Group 3, but everyone runs in it over here. The quality of that race is very high. Racing is about commercial value at stud, not the prize money that we race for."
The Nell Gwyn is open only to three-year-old fillies and has produced three subsequent Group 1 winners in the past decade, including the dual Oaks winner Petrushka. If Cecil is correct about certain prestige races adding value at stud, then the Dubai World Cup is perfectly placed to put the finishing seal on the careers of some of the sport's greatest racehorses.
Along with Fantastic Light, Street Cry was Godolphin's most lucrative racehorse. The son of Machiavellian won the 2002 Dubai World Cup en route to amassing career earnings that exceeded $5m.
As a result of his prowess on the racecourse and his pedigree, Street Cry possessed excellent stud potential and stood at Jonabell Farm under the Darley banner in 2003. His fee was set at $30,000 and he bred 131 mares and had 92 live foals. In the subsequent years he had 87 and 74 live foals, all at $30,000.
In 2006, Street Cry sired Street Sense, the US champion two-year-old colt who eventually won six of his 13 starts, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby. He finished out of the frame only once. Street Cry's fee skyrocketed, and in 2009 he bred 169 mares at a fee of $150,000 each. He produced 134 foals, 99 of which are owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice president of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Street Cry is, of course, one of the most lucrative stallions alive and remains one of the few horses to have taken the race in his stride and gone on to better that performance elsewhere. Five of the last seven Dubai World Cup winners never won again, although Roses In May and Invasor went straight to stud.
Bennie Woolley, the former trainer of Mine That Bird, the Kentucky Derby winner, has found it difficult to reconcile his ambition to race in the UAE with the fact that the Dubai World Cup is now staged on Tapeta, a synthetic all-weather surface. The surface, for a lot of American racehorses, is a stumbling block to expansion of the race into the US, and Woolley sent a warning signal last year that Tapeta could stem the flow of American runners in the future.
"It's too much of a gamble," he said. "Time and again you've seen horses who have won the race get toasted on their return. It's OK if you win the big one because the prize money is so good, but if you finish fourth, it's really not worth the trip halfway around the world."
Despite Woolley's beliefs, the Americans have two horses entered in tonight's big race, Fly Down and Gio Ponti, in an overall US contingent of 13 on the card.
For Dubai World Cup winners that have become active stallions since 2002, the fees range from Moon Ballad's $2,500 to Curlin's $40,000.
There is no firm rule in breeding but two bloodlines cast a shadow over the 15 winners of the race.
Cigar, Singspiel, Almuktawel, Dubai Millennium, Moon Ballad, Electrocutionist and Curlin all boast the blood of Northern Dancer, the sire whose stud fee reached $1m in the 1980s. Curlin, Almuktawel, Dubai Millennium and Street Cry all share Mr Prospector as their grandsire.
All dynasties, however, come to an end. Last year, Gloria de Campeao became only the second horse to win the Dubai World Cup that was not trained by either Saeed bin Suroor or in America, the other being Singspiel, trained by the Briton Michael Stoute. What made Pascal Bary's winner so different, and potentially so exciting, was that it was the first South American-bred horse to prevail in the 2,000m feature.
When the entries for the Dubai World Cup were announced in January, horses from 18 countries were entered. Tonight's race boasts the highest-earning field for any race held outside Japan. The World Cup is opening up, and the increased global competition can only make it a stronger event in the future.
Meydan plays its part, too
If the Dubai World Cup is finally entering the consciousness of all but the most unadventurous owners and trainers, it is through no little help from Meydan Racecourse.
Henry Cecil, the trainer, leads the international contingent in awe at the US$2 billion facility.
“The Meydan Complex can almost be classed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World; a remarkable achievement building it in such a short space of time,” the 10-time British champion trainer said.
Two months ago another British trainer, David Nicholls, called Meydan the centre of the racing world. “Everything is laid on,” said John Gosden, who has trained in California but is now based in Newmarket.
“The main track is fantastic, and the turf course is the finest in the world. You receive the highest quality of feed and bedding, there are great trotting areas, and the training area is big enough to race on.”
How the meetings measure up
Timeform ratings are designed to convert the relative performance of horses in each race. Here are the ratings for the winners of the past 10 all-age international championship races in major racing nations:
King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes
Average rating 131.6
Year Winner Rating
2001 Galileo 134
2002 Golan 129
2003 Alamshar 133
2004 Doyen 132
2005 Azamour 130
2006 Hurricane Run 128+
2007 Dylan Thomas 132
2008 Duke of Marmalade 129
2009 Conduit 129
2010 Harbinger 140
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
Average rating 131.2
2001 Sakhee 135+
2002 Marienbard 129
2003 Dalakhani 133
2004 Bago 130
2005 Hurricane Run 134
2006 Rail Link 132
2007 Dylan Thomas 127+
2008 Zarkava 130+
2009 Sea The Stars 129+
2010 Workforce 133
Breeders’ Cup Classic
Average rating 130
2001 Tiznow 130+
2002 Volponi 131
2003 Pleasantly Perfect 126
2004 Ghostzapper 137
2005 Saint Liam 128
2006 Invasor 128+
2007 Curlin 131
2008 Raven’s Pass 131+
2009 Zenyatta 129+
2010 Blame 129
Dubai World Cup
Average rating 129
2001 Captain Steve 127+
2002 Street Cry 127+
2003 Moon Ballad 131
2004 Pleasantly Perfect 130
2005 Roses in May 128
2006 Electrocutionist 127
2007 Invasor 132
2008 Curlin 134
2009 Well Armed 129
2010 Gloria De Campeao 125
Hong Kong Cup
Average rating 127.6
2001 Agnes Digital 133+
2002 Precision 131
2003 Falbrav 134+
2004 Alexander Goldrun 121
2005 Vengeance of Rain 136
2006 Pride 128
2007 Ramonti 123
2008 Eagle Mountain 124
2009 Vision D’Etat 127
2010 Snow Fairy 119
Average rating 126.8
2001 Jungle Pocket 131
2002 Falbrav 134
2003 Tap Dance City 125
2004 Zenno Rob Roy 125
2005 Alkaased 127
2006 Deep Impact 128
2007 Admire Moon 127
2008 Screen Hero 124
2009 Vodka 123
2010 Rose Kingdom 124+