DUBAI // Like every other trainer based at Nad al Sheba, the Emirati Musabah al Muhairi is taking his time in getting to grips with the new Tapeta training track. It is becoming a familiar refrain from the yards that line either side of the narrow, construction-ravaged road next to the new Meydan facility that is rising rapidly from the sands.
Handlers want to see how their horses fare in the early season before going all out on an unfamiliar synthetic surface. As a result, it is possible that the runners pitching up at Jebel Ali every Friday from Nad al Sheba are not quite as fit as they might have been this time last year. The preliminary results produced on Jebel Ali's dirt track seem to bear out that theory, skewed as they are in favour of trainers who prepare horses on the same surface - dirt.
Al Muhairi, who plies his trade at Oasis Stables, says it will be a few more weeks before he really knows how fit his horses are or what they can achieve. "We feel our horses are fit and they look fit," said the Emirati trainer. "But they are working on a lighter surface than the dirt we had here before or the track we have at Jebel Ali, which is the venue for the Friday fixtures this season," he added. "It is interesting because the different surface means the horses are using different muscles, ones they are not used to working. When they are adapted, then we will know where we are.
"In the beginning, the horses were losing their shoes on the track, but as they adapt their action that problem has stopped." Al Muhairi and his Australian assistant, John Nicholls, are preparing 52 horses, including eight Arabians, for the transition season. Last year the old Nad al Sheba track hosted the traditional Thursday night meeting of the Winter Racing Challenge under floodlights. This year the fixture has been switched to Friday afternoons at Jebel Ali, which does not have floodlights, while Meydan is prepared for the grand opening on January 28.
A former police officer, al Muhairi has long been a fan of anything you can race. Always sporty, he was a dhow sailor in his youth, and discovered he had a love for horses and used to train and race them with his friends. "I was with the police in the morning and in the afternoon with the horses," he says. "We used to gallop them just to see how well we could train. Then people started giving me their horses to train and I got interested and learned more and more about it."
As well as some accomplished early-season runners, Oasis Stables also produced the World Cup contender Snaafy last season. A star of the Dubai International Racing Carnival, Snaafy, owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, was unbeaten in three consecutive starts, booking a place in Dubai's showpiece, US$6 million (Dh22m) race and finishing seventh of 14. "He showed his ability the season before and he had a slight hiccup at the start of last season which actually worked in his favour because we backed off him for a while," said Nicholls. "He peaked at the right time for us."
Snaafy will be back this year, but, as a dirt horse, this time he is far more of an unknown quantity in the Carnival which will be run on Meydan's Tapeta. "We know he's a good horse but we don't know whether he will be the same horse on the synthetic surface," says Nicholls. "Perhaps he may not be as good, but it does work both ways. Horses that might not be big and strong enough for dirt could thrive on Tapeta because they float over it a bit easier."
The Tapeta surface is also likely to encourage more trainers from Europe to make the trip to the UAE for the international fixtures. In al Muhairi's yard there are runners who seem set to hold their own among the international challengers this season, although the trainer is cautious about which will be ones to look out for at this early stage. "Some horses that were struggling last year are feeling better on this surface and some that were really good on dirt need time to change and get comfortable," he said.
Some stand out though. Swinging Sixties, a four-year-old from England, is worth looking out for later on in the season. A good winner of a handicap at Newmarket last time out in 2008, he has won three of his six starts over 1m 2f. Hattan, a Group performer in England, will also get his chance as the year progresses. The seven-year-old is a seasoned campaigner, having triumphed three times at Group Three level.
Oasis also have strong contenders for the early season. Seabow got al Muhairi off to a winning start at the first meet, landing a 1m 2f furlong handicap at Jebel Ali. Ibn Battuta, a four-year-old, also came good at the first Abu Dhabi meeting, claiming the final race of the day. That win over seven furlongs has probably set Ibn Batutta up as a Carnival contender. @Email:email@example.com