Khamzat Ulubaev tells Sarah Tregoning how escaping war-torn Grozny as a child put him on a course to riding at Meydan,
Chechen jockey Khamzat Ulubaev's career born out of chance
Khamzat Ulubaev, who tonight will become the first Chechen to ride in the Dubai World Cup Carnival, was never meant to be a jockey.
That is not to say he does not have the right skills for the job. The 25 year old was Russia's champion rider in 2010 and 2011 and has 74 winners from 209 rides - and that is a good strike rate in anyone's book.
Yet as a child growing up in Grozny, Chechnya's capital, the idea of riding racehorses for a living never crossed his mind.
In fact, like most of Grozny's residents at that time, Ulubaev and his family were more concerned with escaping the ravages of the war that raged in the 1990s and early 2000s. They joined an exodus from the capital that numbered in the tens of thousands, seeking a place of relative safety.
"I am not from a racing family," Ulubaev said. "I only started riding when we fled from Grozny to go to Pyatigorsk during the war. Pyatigorsk is a popular tourist place, with mineral baths and mountains but also a racetrack, the Pyatigorsk Hippodrome, and that's where we lived during the war years."
It was there, 280km from Grozny, that Ulubaev bumped into a racehorse trainer, Sayd Shaptukaev, who recognised that the youngster had the slight yet strong physique prized among jockeys and introduced the teenager to riding.
That meeting launched a racing partnership that has now lasted 15 years and seen the pair claim many of Russia's most important races including numerous President's Cups and Russian Derbies.
"From that beginning in Pyatigorsk I have now ridden all over Russia," Ulubaev said. "But this is my first time riding in a meeting outside Russia and I am very excited to have the opportunity."
Ulubaev and Shaptukaev arrived in the UAE on February 6 with two horses - Ergiyas and Dorian Crown - that have been trained by Shaptukaev in Moscow.
Both are top runners in Russia. Ergiyas is the winner of 12 of his 17 Russian starts and Dorian Crown has won eight from 19. Both have claimed Russian Group races with Dorian Crown winning over distances of 2,000 metres to 2,400m and Ergiyas claiming victories in races over 1,200m to 1,400m.
Whatever they have achieved in Russia though, there is no telling how the form will hold up against an international field at Meydan Racecourse. And after wintering in frozen Moscow, the pair are some way from race fitness.
So Ulubaev will get his first UAE ride on Herman Brown's Sweet Ducky, a horse from the international string of the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.
Sweet Ducky, who was second in the 2010 Holy Bull Stakes, a US Grade 3 dirt race, is getting a first turf start tonight in the evening's final 2,000m race following a handful of lacklustre performances on Tapeta.
The colt faces stiff competition from four Godolphin runners and two Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid entries.
"Sayd asked me if I would give Khamzat a ride and it was a pleasure to put him up," said Brown, who normally has the top British jockey Ryan Moore on his horses. "Khamzat is a top rider in Russia and I've seen him riding in the mornings and he rides very well.
"Obviously there is no substitute for race riding, but he has ridden in Russia's biggest races so I see no reason why he won't do a good job. There are no rules in our game. You never know, this could be the start of an international career for him."
Whatever the future might hold for him, Ulubaev says he is concentrating on enjoying his time at Meydan.
"This is the world stage," said Ulubaev, who has certainly enjoyed success on the Russian stage. At the 2010 Russian World Cup Ulubaev claimed an elite treble of the Russian Derby, Russian Oaks and the President of Russia Cup.
"In Dubai they have the best horses, the best jockeys and the best trainers. The racecourse is amazing. I don't have words to explain how I'm feeling and what I'm thinking but I am very excited and honoured to ride here and I look forward to riding alongside the best."
Ulubaev will expect to partner Shaptukaev's horses when they finally get a race but the trainer said that the Russian horses will need some time.
"They travelled well, they are eating up and they have settled," he said. "But it is the closed season in Russia and so they are just not as fit as I would like. We will take some time with them and get them fit before they have a race."