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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 April 2019

Why it's time to visit Jebel Ali racecourse, Dubai's hidden treasure

It's the less flashy, slightly forgotten older brother of Meydan racecourse – and it's brilliant

Terrific Challenge ridden by Richard Mullen (yellow and red cap) comes home to win the Jebel Ali Sprint Prep at the Jebel Ali racecourse. Stephen Lock / The National
Terrific Challenge ridden by Richard Mullen (yellow and red cap) comes home to win the Jebel Ali Sprint Prep at the Jebel Ali racecourse. Stephen Lock / The National

Horse racing is different from most other sports in that a significant proportion of the crowd often has no interest whatsoever in the action. This will no doubt irritate racing’s obsessive fans, but I’m afraid it’s true – a day or an evening at the races is, for many people, an excuse to socialise, relax or spend time with the family. The racecourse provides a destination; the races a neat structure.

The same cannot be said for other sports, such as football, rugby or tennis, where the action is relentless, while the stadium, with its allocated seating, restricts you from moseying about in the way you can at the races – a little sit down on the grass, perhaps, grab something to eat, wander over to the paddock.

Jebel Ali racecourse

All of which brings me to Jebel Ali racecourse. Hidden away in Dubai between Al Barsha and Emirates Hills, Jebel Ali is the less flashy, slightly forgotten older brother of Meydan racecourse, which is just a 20-minute drive away but feels as if it is from a different universe.

Where Meydan, which opened in 2010, is all futuristic architecture and state-of-the-art facilities, Jebel Ali which was built in 1990 and had a bit of a facelift in 1995, but doesn’t appear to have had a spruce-up since is cramped and appealingly frayed at the edges.

But, to my mind at least, if it’s a day out you’re after, there is no comparison.

General crowd pictures of the race day at Jebel Ali racecourse. Antonie Robertson / The National
General crowd pictures of the race day at Jebel Ali racecourse. Antonie Robertson / The National

A buzzing atmosphere

Never mind the horses – we’ll get on to those later – Jebel Ali racecourse buzzes with the excitement of lots of people squashed into a small space. If you want to get a seat on the white benches in the stand overlooking the finishing post, be prepared to hiss at everyone else to budge up a bit. It tells you all you need to know about the place that someone will always find room for you.

Don’t panic, though. The moment you get weary of jostling for a view, you can make your way to a vast expanse of grass just a few yards from the main stand and set up camp with a rug and a picnic.

The experience

Driving up the long pot-holed track off Al Khamila street towards Jebel Ali racecourse feels like a process of decompression, as you swap Dubai’s sheen for something earthier and more ragged. On arrival, racegoers are funnelled into an underpass, emerging at the back of the main stand, where you can buy cups of strong black tea and join the loose huddles of people poring over race cards. Round the front, you will encounter plenty of serious racing fans but also couples enjoying the sunshine, children running riot, and old men smoking cigarettes or dozing off. Anything goes here in a way that it doesn’t quite at Meydan, where the sheer scale of the place cows you somehow. There is just the slightest sense at Meydan that you need to be on best behaviour. Not here. In part, that’s because racing at Jebel Ali takes place every other Friday and with the weekend stretching ahead, a particularly carefree atmosphere prevails. If you drop off and miss the third race, who cares? It’s been a busy week.

The food stalls are basic but there are plenty of them and you can pick up a chicken shawarma, oozing with mayonnaise and stuffed with French fries, for a few dirhams, followed by a box of syrupy luqaimat. No-one seems to bother with the queueing thing, so if you want to get served, you need to sharpen your elbows and shout out for service.

Fathayer (USA) ridden by Royston Ffrench (jockey) after he won the 1800m race at Jebel Ali racecourse. Pawan Singh / The National
Fathayer (USA) ridden by Royston Ffrench (jockey) after he won the 1800m race at Jebel Ali racecourse. Pawan Singh / The National

Watching the sport

As a life-long racing fan, it feels wrong to relegate the horses to an afterthought. But the track itself is not especially well designed for watching the sport. You can wander down to the rail and see the horses gallop past on the dirt track, so close you can almost reach out and touch them, as they make their way up the unforgiving hill to the finish line. But it’s almost impossible from this spot to see which horse has won, while the stand itself, although in prime position in front of the finishing post, is not quite elevated enough to provide panoramic views across the course, so you only really see the horses in the last 200 metres or so of the race. It’s a bit of a conundrum. Added to this, there is only a single big screen and it’s, well, not very big.

For the racing connoisseur, Meydan is clearly the more appealing destination, not least because the quality of racing is markedly higher. For everyone else, though, the real fun can be found at Jebel Ali.

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Updated: January 10, 2019 06:25 PM

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