x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Back in the saddle for the UAE horse racing season

Reigning champion trainer Al Raihe has set himself different targets as campaign gets up and running at Jebel Ali today, writes Amith Passela.

Ali Rashid Al Raihe at the Grandstand Stable.
Ali Rashid Al Raihe at the Grandstand Stable.

Common wisdom holds that winning a championship is easier than defending one. If so, the trainer Ali Rashid Al Raihe has been hard at work the past two seasons, because his first UAE championship, in 2010, has been followed by two more, each more impressive than the previous.

The Emirati said it was a dream come true for him when he was crowned champion trainer for the first time. Now, he no longer looks at the trainer's title as a priority.

"It is history now," he said. "I am now looking forward to the season ahead as a fresh beginning. If I win the trainer's title it will be well and truly good but otherwise I will not lose sleep over it."

Al Raihe clinched the first of his three trainer's titles when Al Shemali landed the US$5 million (Dh18.36m) Dubai Duty Free for his first Group 1 prize, at the Dubai World Cup meeting in March 2010.

He had more than his trainer's title to celebrate that night as Calming Influence, trained by his former assistant Mahmoud Al Zarooni, appointed as Godolphin's new trainer, and ridden by Ahmed Ajtebi, won the Godolphin Mile. "Indeed, it was a dream come true when I first won the UAE trainer's title, especially to clinch it on Dubai World Cup night with my first Group 1 winner," Al Raihe said.

"And it was a great occasion too for Mahmoud to start with a winner as a new trainer for Godolphin on the same night, and ridden by my old apprentice Ahmed. That was very special. So for all of us to have a big night winner was great."

Al Raihe retained the trainer's crown last season with a record five winners at the final meeting of the Dubai World Cup Carnival at Meydan Racecourse.

He saddled 28 winners when he edged out Doug Watson by one victory for his first trainer's title and topped the winners chart with 30 and 47, respectively, in the next two seasons.

"I am fortunate to have a great team," Al Raihe said. "It is a continuation of the work every season.

"We started preparing the horses for the new season from August with their track work from four to seven in the morning. And that means the staff is up by 2.30am and this was the ideal time for the track work in the summer months."

Al Raihe has 75 horses in training, with some new arrivals for the Emirati owners Jaber Abdullah, Saeed Manana, and Ahmad Shaikh, all of whom have a strong international presence in the racing industry.

To meet that demand, the Grandstand Stable has employed Harry Bentley, the leading British apprentice last year.

Royston Ffrench, whose association with Al Raihe now counts six years, remains the first jockey while Saeed Al Mazrooei, the Emirati apprentice, sets his sights on more riding opportunities.

Said Al Raihe: "Saeed is our own lad and if don't provide him the rides, who will? He has improved leaps and bounds, and he will definitely get a lot of rides this season.

"Royston has been an asset for the stables. He has not only been riding winners for us but has helped the stable in every way he can, and shared his experience with both Ahmed [Ajtebi], when he was an apprentice, and Saeed.

"Sometimes the owners have their own arrangements on the jockey bookings but Royston and Saeed will be doing the bulk of the riding for the stable. We have many horses to use Harry, Ahmed and even Silvestre de Sousa [the Godolphin jockey]."

Al Raihe's transition from camel race trainer to handling horses is a equine rags to riches story.

He was provided with the opportunity to train horses by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Al Raihe's humility is still one of his characteristics despite the success he has enjoyed as a trainer.

"He is a kind, friendly and honest person. He treats each and every one like a family member," said Jilani Siddiqui, his assistant and also his translator for the English-speaking media. For me, he has been a great boss to work with. He gave me the real break and improved my life. I have completed seven years at the Grandstand Stables and enjoying every moment of it."

Siddiqui, 37, joined as a work rider in 1999 and was promoted to head lad a couple of years later. He was appointed Al Raihe's assistant when Al Zarooni became a Godolphin trainer in 2010.

"He has a lot of trust in his staff," Siddiqui said. "He would not hesitate handing over responsibilities."

Siddiqui, who was born in Pakistan, is the second in a family of 10 boys and 10 girls, and comes from a family that has long been involved with horses. His grandfather and father were riding instructors. His younger brothers, Najam and Haider, are work riders for the Irish trainer Jim Bolger in Dublin. Abid and Abdul Raheem have similar jobs with Al Zarooni.

Al Raihe does not expect most of the new arrivals to be ready to race in the early part of the campaign. "Perhaps a few could at some stage of the season," he said. He feels his strategy for the new season will largely depend on some of the horses that showed good form last season.

Happy Dubai, a five-time winner in Dubai, will be aimed at the top sprint prizes in the country, First City, who shocked Mike de Kock's Mahbooba in the Group 1 Cape Verdi, and Derbaas, a winner of four races in Dubai including the Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort, are both Dubai World Cup Carnival prospects. "They have been training well and are in good shape for another successful campaign this season," Siddiqui said.

Rutland Boy returns on the back of a hat-trick of victories. The four-year-old gelded chestnut son of Bertolini ended the season on a handicap rating of 95 after starting at 74 on his arrival from the United Kingdom.

Hadba and Garba are two fillies with scope for more improvement, Siddiqui said.

"Hadba is nicknamed the little Ferrari," he said. "She won her last two starts impressively and has a lot of improvement coming on her this season. Garba is another with similar hopes.

"Overall, we expect another good season and, like the boss says, it is about preparing winners for the stables. I wish we have a good number this season as well."