x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dubai World Cup's real stars

As excitement peaks in Dubai on World Cup Day at Meydan, Sarah Tregoning has some tips for making the most of the big occasion.

The jockey Jerry Bailey rides the American superhorse Cigar to victory over Soul of the Matter in the first Dubai World Cup in 1996.
The jockey Jerry Bailey rides the American superhorse Cigar to victory over Soul of the Matter in the first Dubai World Cup in 1996.

During its 14 years at Nad al Sheba, Dubai World Cup Day produced the greatest moments in UAE racing history. The old track saw many world-class performances - Dubai Millennium's victory in 2000, Pleasantly Perfect's winning duel with Medaglia D'Oro in 2004, and the dead heat of Right Approach and Paolini in the 2004 Dubai Duty Free are just a few of them. From the day in 1996 when Cigar, America's record-breaking thoroughbred, made what at the time seemed a most unlikely trip to the desert to contest and win the first World Cup, the racing world has never ignored what Dubai has brought to the sport.

On the big day, though, the racing has often been secondary to the social scene for the average World Cup day spectator. For many, what was happening on the track was simply a sideshow. During the Nad al Sheba years, the well-dressed, well-heeled crowds in International Village rarely seemed to watch a race from beginning to end. That was not too surprising: if you were in International Village, taking in a race meant crossing a large expanse of turf and fighting for a spot at the rail. For many, it was a little too much effort.

This year, the experience of the average racegoer promises to be very different. For a start, the 15th running of the Dubai World Cup, with prize money of US$10 million (Dh36.7m) will be run at the futuristic new Meydan Racecourse. The jockey Frankie Dettori, after riding his first winner at the new track on January 28, described the development as "something out of Star Wars". Certainly the long, crouching, glass and steel structure, with its futuristic light show, has given the impression all season that it might just set off for outer space after racing one evening.

But more than being simply impressive in its ambition and imposing in its size, Meydan Racecourse has been designed to offer more than 60,000 people an all-round racing experience. Any regular racegoer who spent time at Nad al Sheba will tell you it was a much-loved and homely track with a special atmosphere. And we miss it. But it wasn't designed to offer first-class viewing to thousands of people.

On the other hand, anybody who has been to Meydan this season can testify that, while it may take time to adjust to the sheer scale of the facility, it is ideal for its primary purpose: watching racing. The immense glass frontage, running the length of the kilometre-long grandstand, coupled with masses of track-facing seating and the trackside standing area, mean that spectators cannot avoid being confronted with the vista of the twin tracks, one turf the other synthetic Tapeta.

No one will be behind the grandstand tonight, unable to see what's happening. International Village is a thing of the past. The see-and-be-seen racegoers need only do an about-turn from the party action to look out the windows and cheer home the runners. And with the biggest big screen in the world (what else?) broadcasting every hoofbeat on the track and every nervous grimace in the parade ring, there is no reason to miss even a second of the action.

That takes care of access. The second issue in turning people on to the racing rather than the social scene is somewhat more complex and cannot be addressed overnight. It is something the industry as a whole must tackle, and it involves finding ways to attract new fans to the sport with so much competition around for their time and money. When it comes to this, racing in the UAE is unique. While money from betting is a major factor in the horse-racing industry in most of the world's racing centres, gambling is illegal in the Emirates and the sport here is just that - a pure sporting occasion.

In which there are some interesting and valid comparisons with football. It is the world's most popular game at least in part because the fans are involved. They lap up all sorts of information, ranging from who the WAGs are and, in David Beckham's case what they look like. Players' achievements and often spectacular falls from grace are avidly reported in everything from racy tabloids to staid broadsheets.

Through the media, there is a dialogue between fans and players - an ongoing conversation that keeps the public informed about developments on and off the playing arena. There is a deep well of passion surrounding football because it is accessible in a way horse-racing is not. And that is the key. Passion exists in racing, by the bucket-load, so do some of the most engaging human and, for want of a better phrase, 'horse-interest' stories. Yet that information does not always reach those outside racing circles.

The racing industry can seem a tight-knit, close-lipped clique, the terminology can be off-putting and if you are not a student of form the entire industry could pass you by. Racing authorities are addressing these issues to ensure the sport's long-term health in a crowded market place. In the UK, the British Horseracing Authority is implementing a scheme called 'Racing For Change'. The real stars of the show, the headliners whose triumphs and tribulations are as engrossing as those of any footballing idol, are the horses and the courageous men who ride them.

I had tears in my eyes as I watched Zenyatta, the unbeaten, lion-hearted mare, win the Breeders' Cup Classic last year, leading home the traditionally stronger colts and horses after lagging behind excruciatingly after missing the break. I was lucky enough to be at Royal Ascot last year when Yeats, that marvellous old war-horse, won the Ascot Gold Cup for a record fourth time. The then eight-year-old's spirit in finishing the 2m4f slog under Johnny Murtagh to become arguably the best stayer of all time, was breathtaking and I'll remember it for the rest of my life.

Imperial Commander won last week's Cheltenham Gold Cup, flying in the face of the pre-race buzz which passed the contest off as a two-horse race between Denman and Kauto Star. Racing is peppered with hard luck, good luck and rags to riches stories. They are making a film about Takeover Target, the A$6 million (Dh20m)-winning sprinter who was bought by a taxi driver for $1,250. Then there was the drama of the legendary English jockey Lester Piggott, winner of a record nine Epsom Derbies, who was jailed for a year for tax evasion then came out of retirement to win the Breeders' Cup Mile at the age of 54.

Then there's Kieren Fallon, the prodigiously talented jockey who rides Youmzain tonight in a fourth attempt at the Sheema Classic. The horse is interesting enough, and so is the jockey, who is on the comeback trail after a drugs ban. Fallon will be chasing a seventh jockeys' championship this summer. A different sort of comeback was achieved by Frankie Dettori, believed by many to be the finest of the current crop of race riders, who survived a horrific plane crash in 2000.

On tonight's race card alone, there are any number of talking points. There has already been a major disappointment. Japan's Vodka, a seven-time Group One winner, was forced to retire before her planned swansong in the World Cup. But a younger filly, Red Desire, also from Japan, has emerged with perfect timing to take her place. Spanish Moon, a Sheema Classic runner tonight, spent the last six months serving a UK ban from racing for being difficult to load in the starting gate.

It may have been the best thing that happened to him - he has since earned $1.3million in prize money on foreign shores. The list could go on. The Golden Shaheen runner, Rocket Man, suffered a hairline leg fracture last year. Tonight's sprint represents the biggest test of both his career and his comeback. Those are just a few of the stories that will continue to unfold at Meydan this evening, with $26.25m in prize money at stake in the course of eight races; first place in the World Cup alone is worth $6m.

By the end of the night the entire spectrum of human emotion will have been played out. There will be tears and anger, laughter and jubilation. No one is asking for people to forsake the World Cup social scene; getting dressed up and having a good time is part of why racing is so much fun. But spare more than a passing thought, and more than a passing glance, for those four-legged stars of racing's richest evening.

stregoning@thenational.ae