Thoughts of Dubai World Cup's beginnings at Nad Al Sheba are still as vibrant as the fireworks that will light up Meydan Racecourse.
A perfect memory bouquet arranged of Nad Al Sheba on Dubai World Cup night
On Thursday night, firework displays filled Dubai’s skies, a reminder, in case anyone’s mind had wandered, that the most glamorous day in the city’s sporting calendar was almost here.
It is hard to recall a time when the Dubai World Cup wasn’t a big deal, but for racing fans with long memories, the early days at Nad Al Sheba seem quaint in comparison with its present at Meydan Racecourse.
In hindsight it was hardly our little secret but, still, the Dubai World Cup felt like an exclusive party everyone knew about, but few were invited to.
The Millennium Grandstand had opened in 2001, the 6,000-seat capacity providing a magnificent view of the left-handed track.
It was an architectural triumph for Dubai Racing Club, but one that would be spectacularly blown away nine years later.
“I have so many wonderful memories from Nad Al Sheba,” said long-time Dubai resident and racing fan Terry Dehdashty. “It is the first home of Godolphin, and it’s what introduced racing to Dubai and was a big part of introducing Dubai to the world.”
Dehdashty was present at the first World Cup in 1996. Since then she has missed only in 2008 and 2010.
“Although it did have a global audience, it definitely was a smaller event at Nad Al Sheba and perhaps more intimate,” the Iranian marketing consultant said.
Since then the number of visitors has steadily risen. Many are attracted as much by the glamour as the racing. But for most it is all about the horses.
Traffic was often chaotic, fretted over in the days leading up to the big day, and inevitably discussed for a few days after.
There were long queues to enter the International Village, the hive of humanity juxtaposed with the Millennium Grandstand. The mostly grassy area in particular would take its toll on the ladies in big hats and high heels. By early evening, both were optional.
The Irish Village, Starbucks, pizza and burger stands, all there. Not to mention the sponsored, makeshift hospitality stages.
For the hard-core racing fans, though, the best memories came from the track.
“The Dubai World Cup in 2000 and 2003 are two of the more special days, when Dubai Millennium and Moon Ballad, both ridden by Frankie Dettori, won the big race,” Dehdashty said. “The 2005 Dubai World Cup is a favourite, I went to the stables and got to see Roses of May days before the race.
“The trainer, Dale Romans, told me he had to get a passport to leave the US for Dubai and that he thought hummus was the most amazing thing he had ever tasted.”
For first-time visitors, the heat could be scorching, at least until the sun went down.
At the 2009 World Cup, the last held at Nad Al Sheba, it rained, the sky appropriately shedding a tear or two for the beloved venue.
The move to Meydan in 2010 signalled a leap into the future.
A 60,000-seat grandstand, with 285 rooms and suites at the adjoining hotel. A spaceship-like structure in the middle of the desert.
The outlets are now housed inside the grandstand, a welcome haven from the heat of the early hours. Metres away, there are prayer facilities for the thousands of Muslim visitors.
There is no escaping the horses now. Where the old International Village was a side stage to the main event, Meydan’s Apron Views are front row.
With 75 VIP suites as well, Meydan is all things for all people.
For many expatriates and visitors, there will be horses and hats and echoes of home.
For Emiratis and long-term residents there is a reminder, tinged with pride, of just how far the world’s richest race has come in the past two decades.
Let the real fireworks begin.
Check out our INTERACTIVE RACECARD for Saturday night’s events at Meydan Racecourse on Dubai World Cup night.
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