x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dubai World Cup: a race the world watches

American trainer William Mott saddles Royal Delta this weekend – 16 years after his horse Cigar won the inaugural Dubai World Cup. Audio interview

Cigar, right, trained by the American William Mott, was the first-ever winner of the Dubai World Cup when it was held at Nad Al Sheba in 1996. AFP
Cigar, right, trained by the American William Mott, was the first-ever winner of the Dubai World Cup when it was held at Nad Al Sheba in 1996. AFP

What was this "Dubai," anyway? Was it a country? Was it a suburb of Oz? Did it have a castle? Could you go by jet or must you use some superior craft?

Classically insular Americans barely knew in March 1996.

We just knew the Maryland-bred bay Cigar had won 13 consecutive races and would aim for 14 in this mysterious, far-flung Dubai.

The Breeders' Cup Classic winner would have to cross one ocean and, for all many oblivious sorts knew, maybe two.

"As a horseman, I am very proud to have realised an ambition of the World Cup concept that is now to be a reality in Dubai," Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, told reporters in the run-up.

It glittered from afar, almost invisibly.

Well, forward 16 years, and into a small interview room yesterday walked William Mott, a native of South Dakota, a distinction few can claim.

At 16 he trained Kosmic Tour to win the South Dakota Futurity, which paints an image of sparseness and frugality.

At 42 he trained Cigar in the first Dubai World Cup, which did not paint an image of sparseness and frugality.

At 58 he brings Royal Delta to shiny Meydan Racecourse, which in good haze looks as if it might really be Oz.

So if you had to distil Dubai's international sport reputation into one guy's impressions, you could do much worse than this one. Where he arrives trying to change the fact no filly has ever won the race, back then, he said, "No horse had ever won the race".

It did seem a tad outlandish. Cigar had not raced in any foreign country. He had not raced under lights or in such deep sand, let alone at 7pm on a Wednesday at Nad Al Sheba.

"There were so many unknowns," Mott said. "It was obviously the first World Cup. We had no idea about coming to this part of the world. It was all new for me and everybody in the entire staff as well. We didn't know what we were going to run into."

Ask Mott for one prevailing memory, and he starts talking about the fret, and you start to think he might be a horse trainer. Cigar had missed 11 days of training because of an injured foot.

While Sheikh Mohammed had his own quartet among the 11 entries, the wisdom held that the nascent race could use a Cigar victory.

Through various descriptions yesterday, Mott remembered the "foot abscess", the "quarter crack", the "old wound, reopened", the "bad bruise," the "kind of a day-to-day thing".

A trainer noted for a distaste for rushing animals trained a horse "on an extremely accelerated schedule, a rushed schedule," Mott said.

And: "With him, we were pushing a lot to make it although he was a proven horse" at six.

And: "I guess with Cigar we kind of had to hold our breath and hope that the foot was OK, he would be able to handle the challenge."

With Cigar by today a cog of Dubai World Cup history and a supporting actor in UAE history, one South Dakotan has a singular vantage point back across the millennia, back to so long ago that Americans had to leave living rooms for racetrack simulcasts to watch.

Gung-ho support came from Cigar's owner, the late aviation entrepreneur Allen Paulson, who had named Cigar for a pilot's checkpoint.

"I was willing to come, but he was really behind it," Mott said, calling Paulson "a true sportsman" who was "never worried about getting beaten.

"That's one thing he never complained about. He loved to win, but when you got beaten you never heard anything about it.

"It sort of took the pressure off me because I certainly didn't have to talk him into it."

Out here in all kinds of frontier, Mott said, "Oh, there were moments after we got over here I wasn't so sure he was going to be able to run his best. The trip took quite a bit out of him. He wasn't really eating well, He didn't seem his very best. That was maybe nine or 10 days out.

"For some reason, miraculously" - a word Mott enunciated slowly - "he seemed to brighten up. Then showed he was his old self on race night."

He stared down the charging Soul Of The Matter, revealed a previously cloaked grit and lent the race considerable starshine.

So here we are in old Oz, Mott's third time, no big unknowns, world's richest race, everything familiar including Dubai itself, by now an established concept even to Americans who'll watch from sofas at home.

ccupepepper@thenational.ae

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