x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Horse racing in UAE more than a national pastime

The sport has evolved from being a hobby for Emiratis to world-renowned industry in the country, writes Amith Passela.

Jerry Bailey on Cigar celebrates after edging out Soul of the Matter to win the Dubai World Cup race by a half-length in 1996. The success of the competition is due in large part to the vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Phil Cole / Allsport
Jerry Bailey on Cigar celebrates after edging out Soul of the Matter to win the Dubai World Cup race by a half-length in 1996. The success of the competition is due in large part to the vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Phil Cole / Allsport

In their youth, Ali Rashid Al Raihe and Musabah Al Muhairi, now the two leading Emirati trainers, raced bareback on horses across the desert.

It was just for fun in those days, but the pair have emerged as key figures in a thriving racing scene across the UAE, which has grown in tandem with the Emirates.

According to Al Raihe, races started being conducted from 1975 when competitions were held at the Al Tallah camel racetracks in Ajman.

He became a trainer at that time and Al Muhairi, now his brother in law, his stable jockey and races were also staged in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.

"Everyone who raced followed the unwritten rules of racing at that time," said Al Raihe, the three-time UAE champion trainer.

"There were no starting gates. The horses were led to the starting point and flagged off. We had a good mixture of horses that included the Purebred Arabians, Anglo Arabs and the Thoroughbreds at that time."

Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, the Ruler of Ajman, was the main patron when races were conducted in the emirate.

But it was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who put the Emirates on the international map.

Sheikh Mohammed had a passion for horses from his childhood days and his involvement in racing really got going when Hatta, a filly he owned, gave him his first success at Brighton, England, on June 20, 1977.

It was always Sheikh Mohammed's dream to establish a racing scene in the Emirates and the first experiment was another camel racetrack in Dubai in 1982 where three races for the thoroughbreds were run.

Nearly a decade later the Emirates Racing Authority, the governing body for horse racing in the country, was established and races conducted under the Emirates Racing Rules.

Sheikh Mohammed has become one of the most successful owner-breeders and it is his foresight that has helped the UAE become a major player in the world of horse racing - as demonstrated by the Dubai World Cup Carnival at Meydan Racecourse, including the Dubai World Cup, which attracts horses from around the world.

In Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, was instrumental in promoting the Purebred Arabians and the capital's racecourse has become the unofficial headquarters of the breed for flat racing.

Pat Buckley has been under the starter's orders more than anyone in the horse-racing industry in the Emirates. He played a pioneering role in establishing racing in Oman before moving on to his present job as the racing director of the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club in 1991.

"Abu Dhabi is deeply rooted to traditions and the Purebred Arabians are part of the culture and heritage, thus the races are predominantly for the breed," he said.

"The late president, Sheikh Zayed, founded the breeding stables with the idea of establishing the finest Purebreds for racing and the tradition continues with the rulers of the country."

Abu Dhabi may not have a facility quite as eye-catching as the Meydan Racecourse, but they have steadily established the industry, both in terms of the racing and its infrastructure, including a packed racing calendar.

The President's Cup for Purebreds with a purse of Dh 1million is the highlight of the season, along with the National Day Cup and the Emirates Championship.

"The list has grown over the years with the UAE Arabian Derby, the Triple Crown series, and the Classics for the local bred colts and fillies," Buckley said.

And the racing scene in the UAE is not standing still.

There are also plans for Al Ain Equestrian, Golf and Shooting Club to join Abu Dhabi, Meydan, Jebel Ali and Sharjah as a destination for horse racing, with a couple of trials earmarked for later this season.

apassela@thenational.ae

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