The problem with being very successful is that you set a marker against which future performances will be measured. Rod Simpson, trainer for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, came runner-up in the combined thoroughbred and Arabian trainers' championship last season and now faces the task of living up to his recent glory.
"The trouble with having a season like we had last year is that everyone is looking at you to do better," said the London-born handler whose first stint in the UAE was in 2003. Now, ahead of what will be a big season for the UAE with the launch of Meydan, the evergreen 64-year-old knows he has lofty standards to maintain. Simpson and his Al Asayl Stables team recorded 28 winners from a 36-runner yard consisting of Arabians and thoroughbreds last season - not a bad success rate considering that just above him on the table sits champion trainer Doug Watson master of Dubai's Red Stables with 31 from 74.
"It was amazing but it was hard work. It's amazing we did as well as we did because last year we were really still in transition," said Simpson, who runs Al Asayl with his assistant Annie Wise. "Annie, who knows these horses very well, is a major part of this operation and has been essential to our success." Simpson and Wise's hard work paid off with interest when Fryvolous, the purebred Arabian who cut a winning swathe through Arabian races in the UK this summer, romped to a three-and-a-half-length victory in the Group One Kahayla Classic on World Cup day.
Emotional scenes followed for Simpson, with the tearful handler, voice cracking, barely able to speak after the race. "I didn't win any Group Ones with thoroughbreds while I was in the UK, although I won some good Group Twos and Threes," said Simpson, who trained in the English racing town, Lambourne. "Someone asked me why I went so crazy when Fryvolous won the Arabian race on World Cup night when I didn't celebrate any of my UK thoroughbred wins so much, and I think it was because that day was the result of a lot of hard work from everyone here. It was something really special."
Simpson currently has four thoroughbreds in his yard, although eight more are expected to arrive from Europe. The rest of the 36-strong string are Arabians. "The first few races of the season are always tough because everyone wants early results so they put out their best horses. We are going to be represented at all three of the opening meets from November 6 - it's a very important weekend," said Simpson.
"At this stage we are quite forward with our training but my priority is to keep them quiet, keep them sound and keep them happy. You can't get at Arabians. If you do they give you nothing or you break them down. They are spirited and you have to let them develop. If he's ready he will come to you and if he doesn't you just have to put him away for a bit." Simpson's tender method of handling Arabians paid dividends last year. He won the Arabian trainers' title, which runs alongside the combined thoroughbred and Arabian championship, with 24 wins from 30 horses, twice as many as runner-up trainer, Gillian Duffield.
Like last year there is no shortage of rivalry in store for Simpson's runners this season. The ever-competitive Duffield will be back, new trainer in town, Georgina Ward is based at Ghantoot and the formidable Watson is preparing his small but talented Arabian string in Dubai. Yet Simpson has a number of secret weapons in his arsenal. A new crop of three-year-olds are hard at work on a network of specially-built desert trails before being unleashed on the racing scene.
Perhaps his most potent weapon is Swyft, a three-year-old full- brother of Fryvolous. "He looks nothing like his brother, but he seems to be the business," said Simpson, as the iron grey UAE Triple Crown-contender easily galloped up the hill. "He's a little smaller, but the spirit is there and he seems to have the right attitude. "We are just looking to see what he's going to show us." Afterwards, at the start of a mile-long circular track, Simpson watched as his youngsters walked quietly through the starting gates, a few of them stopping to have a good look.
"I lead them through even before they are broken in as I don't want them to think about it on race day," the satisfied trainer said. For Wise and Simpson, a holistic approach is key to success. "We make sure we know these horses well and we treat them like athletes every step of the way." firstname.lastname@example.org