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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

My Meydan voyage into the thrilling world of UAE horseracing

The season is off and running – but for one British fanatic, this is the sport of kings as he’s never experienced it before

It is only a matter of a few metres between the glitzy winners’ enclosure and the free grandstand at Meydan racecourse – close enough for the public to see the owners of New Trails, stoic winner of the big handicap on the opening night of the season, receive a cheque for Dh126,000.

But to be perturbed by this is to misunderstand horse racing, sport’s great leveller. Week after week around the world, rich and poor descend on the same patch of earth, brought together by a shared emotional investment in the thoroughbred. Every time these horses run, we saddle them with hopes and expectations. When they respond – when they really knuckle down to the task – it stirs something deep within us. It has nothing to do with money.

Which is a good thing, since winning any money at Meydan seems to be an aspiration reserved only for the dreamers. Thursday evening’s meeting was my first experience of racing in the UAE. I’m more accustomed to enduring horizontal rain in a corner of England that sunshine forgot, as three horses slog through the mud.

What I quickly learnt on arrival is that, rather than placing a traditional bet with a bookmaker (don’t worry, I wasn’t actually expecting that), racegoers here are invited to pick the winners of six races on the card (Dh12,000 is the first prize). Turns out that’s quite tricky. Full disclosure: one winner, five unplaced horses. Work to be done.

No-one seems to mind, though. If this was about gambling, the place would be empty. But well before the first race at 6.30pm, the stands were alive with crowds of people, all wearing the blue “Meydan” caps handed out on the gate. It was a carnival atmosphere, no doubt partly because of Flag Day but also, I sense, because the frustration of a racing-free summer was finally over. With meetings taking place at Meydan almost every Thursday evening from now right through to March, racing in Dubai is clearly something that has become enmeshed within people’s weekly routine.

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Some were eating picnics on rugs, others were making use of the comfy, cinema-like seats in the grandstand (note to British racecourses: this is an excellent idea). The restaurants were busy and the Kids’ Zone was as chaotic as it should be. The weather helps, of course, but an evening meeting in Britain simply wouldn’t attract this number of people.

And once the racing started, the cheers that greeted a tight finish or a particularly impressive display from an exciting two-year-old (Ahmad bin Harmash’s Walking Thunder is definitely one for the notebook), confirmed that, never mind the chance to have a flutter, this was all about racing lovers enjoying some first-rate action.

The place erupted when, in one valuable handicap, champion trainer Doug Watson’s Pillar of Society and bin Harmash’s Rodaini enjoyed a proper ding-dong in the home straight, with Watson’s horse eventually prevailing by a length and a quarter (Watson had four winners on the night).

Like everything in Dubai, the horse racing industry has developed at great speed, underpinned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s investment. His own racing operation, Godolphin, is enjoying a resurgence and the “Boys in Blue” will surely dominate come the Dubai World Cup Carnival, which runs from January through to March, culminating in the Dubai World Cup.

Until 2009, race meetings in Dubai were held at Nad Al Sheba racecourse, close by but a far cry from the curved, futuristic stadium built to accommodate thousands at Meydan. One woman, who has been going racing in Dubai since 1996, said: “To see what it was then, compared to now, is just amazing. It has totally evolved. The vision of Sheikh Mohammed is amazing; this is what he wanted in the Nineties.”

The investment is paying dividends and not just when the racing world descends on Meydan for the Dubai World Cup, worth $12 million (Dh44 million) to the winner. I spoke to a number of people who had travelled over from Britain for Thursday’s meeting and were already booked in for a return trip.

“Everybody is willing to help you here,” one British man told me. “When you go to Ascot or Epsom, you’re just a number, they take your money and that’s that.” His daughter, who lives in Dubai, added: “It’s a lovely night out and when you have family over from Britain, to see something like this is on a different scale.”

Once the seven races were over (performance of the night came from Jaber Ramadhan’s three-year-old filly, Litigation, who dismantled a strong handicap field in the final race by nine lengths), people quickly made for the exits. There wasn’t much appetite, it has to be said, for the after party. I’m sure the band won’t have enjoyed playing Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody to an empty dance floor.

But you know what? Perhaps this was just further evidence that people are coming to Meydan for the right reason: to watch the horses.