Doug Watson was a young groom looking to make his way in the world of racing when he arrived in Dubai to work as part of Satish Seemar's training operation at the Zabeel Racing Stables in 1993. His plan, when he was plucked from his job as a groom at Arlington Park, was to stay for a year to sample the experience of life in the Middle East before heading back to the USA. Sixteen years on and Watson is still here.
As a three-time champion trainer, the American, who won the title in 2005-06, 2007-08 and again last year, is right up there with the very best operators. "I only came for a year," smiles Watson from his daily vantage point over the Al Quoz dirt track where his horses work in the early morning. "I spent three years as head man with Satish, then worked with Kiaran McLaughlin in a similar role. And I'm now in my seventh season here as a trainer in my own right."
From 1993 to 2003, McLaughlin, Watson's mentor, trained horses in Dubai for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid. Watson became master of the Red Stables when the older handler returned to the USA to set up a training base in New York. Like Watson, McLaughlin won the UAE trainers championship three times, but unlike his student, he has also won races on Dubai World Cup night with Sheikh Hamdan's Atraf in the Dubai Golden Shaheen in 1997.
McLaughlin's biggest achievement in the UAE came in 2007 with Invasor, another Sheikh Hamdan horse, the Breeders Cup Classic winner and 2006 US Horse of the Year, won racing's richest prize, the Dubai World Cup. However, given the level of success Watson has enjoyed, the handler cannot exactly grumble, and he has high hopes his winning ways will continue when the new season starts on November 6 with the first race at Jebel Ali.
Watson is preparing a number of promising horses for Sheikh Hamdan, his nephew Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed and another leading Emirati patron, Malih al Basti. Watson also trains runners for the Emirates Entertainment Racing Club (EERC) syndicate and a number of individual owners from Europe, the USA and the Gulf. "We have been working the horses for around three weeks now," says the trainer who is assisted by Noel Connolly in the day-to-day task of getting his six daily lots of 14 horses fit to gallop and the far tougher task of keeping them sharp enough to win races once they peak.
Watson uses a programme for conditioning horses in the desert that McLaughlin devised years ago, although he has added his own modifications. "You sometimes find that the horses who come over from the US or Europe can take some time to settle in here," said Watson. "It's a matter of them acclimatising. We had a few last season, like Warmonger and Barbecue Eddie [fourth in the Dubai Golden Shaheen in 2008], who might need that first season just to get used to conditions here.
"They have been shipped over from England or France and in the case of Sheikh Hamdan's horses, they have often been handled by some very good trainers over there and have taken their chances and have mainly achieved their levels. "What we hope when they come here is that they take to the dirt surface, or if they are turf horses that they take to the firm turf that we have here, but it can take a little while for them to adapt."
Watson says the UAE-based trainers find themselves in the same situation when horses first come to desert conditions from abroad. "I think I speak for a few of us like Erwan Charpy, Satish Seemar and Dhruba Selvaratnam that we notice this," he says. "We often find horses are not as good as they could be when they first get here and it takes a while for them to start really responding to your programme."