x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

How Sheikh Ahmed changed the face of horse racing

Sheikh Ahmed this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of his popular Jebel Ali Racecourse as well as his partnership with Dhruba Selvaratnam.

Based in Ireland, Dhruba Selvaratnam has been working with horses in the UAE for 20 years.
Based in Ireland, Dhruba Selvaratnam has been working with horses in the UAE for 20 years.

The familiar royal blue colours of Godolphin and conspicuous blue and white striped cap of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid will be familiar sights to racing fans the world over.

Yet there exists another set of UAE colours that have been ridden to many victories that may be a little less well known - the distinctive yellow jacket and black epaulets of Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid.

Sheikh Ahmed, who this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of his popular Jebel Ali Racecourse as well as his partnership with Dhruba Selvaratnam, his UAE trainer, is another of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed's sons who has had a major impact on horse racing at home and abroad.

Sheikh Ahmed, a respected owner and breeder who nevertheless maintains a low profile, has 52 horses in training in Dubai and around 40 in England.

He employs some of the best names to train his string, for as well as Selvaratnam he also engages the services of Michael Jarvis, Marcus Tregoning and Mick Channon.

His CV as an owner takes in some of the most coveted races on the European calendar, including the Irish 2,000 Guineas and Lockinge Stakes with Wassl, his first major runner, in 1983. His stand-out horse Mtoto followed up with Coral Eclipse, Prince of Wales Stakes, Brigadier Gerard Stakes, King George VI Stakes and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes in 1987.

Possessive Dancer won the Italian and Irish Oaks in 1991 and Tobougg took the Dewhurst Stakes in 2000.

And the success keeps on coming for Sheikh Ahmed, who breeds many of his own horses through Darley Stud, the breeding operation of his brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. This season in England he won the Lonsdale Cup with Opinion Poll and had three victories in one day at Ascot with Toolain, Soraaya and Yashrid.

Selvaratnam has also won the Dubai Golden Shaheen, then known as the Nad al Sheba sprint, a record three times in 1993, 1998 and 1999 with Sheikh Ahmed's Satank, Mudallel and Ramp And Rave. The recently retired Seihali, was also a UAE success story who claimed the 2007 Jebel Hatta and was twice placed in the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free.

Sheikh Ahmed built Jebel Ali Racecourse and the adjoining stable in 1990. He brought in Selvaratnam, who was then based in Ireland as the assistant to Vincent O'Brien, the six-time Derby-winning trainer, to oversee construction and train for him.

"Things didn't look too rosy at the time," said Selvaratnam, a four-time UAE champion trainer who holds the record for saddling most winners in a season with 67.

"Vincent was involved in Classic Thoroughbreds which was a publicly-quoted company and it came to a real low. Royal Academy was one of the horses owned by the company and even though he won the Breeders' Cup Mile, the company was still struggling and they started selling horses.

"I got a call from Sheikh Ahmed's office and I flew to London to meet him. Just a few days after the Breeders' Cup I was in the UAE."

The story goes that Sheikh Ahmed was out horseback riding when he spotted the site that is now known as The Greens.

According to the plans set down by Sheikh Ahmed, Jebel Ali's track was to be designed in the style of a right-handed Epsom, the famous Derby course in England, which is renowned for its undulating twists and turns. Jebel Ali, a horseshoe-shaped sand and oil mix track, has become well-known in horse-racing circles for its gruelling uphill finish - a stern test of fitness.

"It is unique in this part of the world," Selvaratnam said. "Most eastern and far eastern tracks tend to be fast, flat ovals, so Jebel Ali is something special."

Sheikh Ahmed takes a keen interest as an owner, Selvaratnam said.

"He is a true gentleman in his dealings," the trainer said. "He knows everything that goes on here but he is also happy to trust my judgement. I go to meet him twice per week and we talk about his horses and his plans. He is very knowledgeable."

The Jebel Ali Racecourse patron has also furthered the worldwide success of Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin, the racing operation that is synonymous with the Dubai brand. Sheikh Ahmed's Iffraaj, a multiple Group-winning horse, raced in Godolphin's blue after five wins in Sheikh Ahmed's yellow and now stands at Darley Stud.

"Godolphin is all about the promotion of Dubai," Selvaratnam said. "That was the reason Sheikh Mohammed formed Godolphin and we have always seen cooperation and partnership between the ruling family."

Sheikh Ahmed's Jebel Ali Racecourse has been a special place for Selvaratnam for 20 years and it is also considered something special by spectators. Around 3,000 flock to the course for the free-to-enter Friday meetings.

Renowned among racegoers for its "garden party" atmosphere, the racecourse features a children's play area and a host of other attractions, grassy slopes where families picnic as well as the VIP grandstand and corporate boxes.

Mirza al Sayegh is Sheikh Hamdan's right-hand man. He attends most Jebel Ali race meetings as the Shadwell Stud representative and he said there is nothing that happens at the track that Sheikh Ahmed is not aware of, even if he is not there.

"When I bring the VIPs to present the prizes on race days, Sheikh Ahmed often calls me to ask who I am with, so I know he is watching on television."

sports@thenational.ae

Jebel Ali

Location: Situated in the Greens area, Dubai, the track is accessed off the Greens Roundabout.
Track: Right-handed 2,200m horse shoe-shaped track with a 900-metre run-in and testing uphill finish is made of oiled sand and dirt. The grandstand and viewing area can seat 2,000 people with space for many more on grass areas.
Race Dates: Racing takes place on Fridays – December 4, 11, 18, January 8, 15, 22, 29, February 12, 26, March 12, 19.
Times: Normally a six-race card, races start at 2.30pm and Purebred Arabians are generally the first runners on the track.
Important Dates: January 14 – Jebel Ali Stakes, January 28 – Jebel Ali Mile, March 11 – Jebel Ali Sprint.
Dress Code: Smart Casual.