x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Inside the home of Arabia's finest

Only the chosen few are allowed a glimpse inside the Godolphin racehorse stables in Dubai - from where the world's finest thoroughbreds have won a vast array of trophies and a worldwide reputation as a stable that delivers, and expects, only the best.

stable attendants, from left, Khasta Khan, Mohammed Farman and Mohammed Niaz, apply poultice to a racehorse.
stable attendants, from left, Khasta Khan, Mohammed Farman and Mohammed Niaz, apply poultice to a racehorse.

DUBAI // You don't have to be a horse racing fan to be familiar with the image of jockey Frankie Dettori's trademark flying dismount after a winning run.

Yet the Royal blue colours of the Godolphin stable with which the Italian jockey has become synonymous were not always instantly recognised in the sport. Godolphin, which belongs to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, does not operate stable tours, but The National had a rare opportunity this week to visit the yard. The stable has put Dubai on the world map, but the trainer Saeed bin Suroor recalls a time when the spotless facility was not quite as full of gleaming racehorses as it is today.

Sixteen years ago, the boys in blue had a handful of runners and were yet to make a mark on the world of thoroughbred racing. "We started with 30 horses," says Mr bin Suroor, a former Dubai policeman from a family of Hatta-based Arabian horse breeders. "Now we have 103 in Dubai and 170 in total." Even then, Sheikh Mohammed was no stranger to racing success, having saddled many winners under his own maroon and white colours.

Godolphin, though, was a new concept. Named after the Godolphin Arabian, one of three Middle Eastern stallions credited with producing the modern thoroughbred, Godolphin showcased Dubai as a world-class horse racing venue. And the fledgling operation was winning big. Balanchine claimed Godolphin's first Classic, the Epsom Oaks, in 1994, and many more victories were to come. Success arrived quickly. International recognition followed later.

"In 1995, we had a Grade One winner in America and they asked where I was from," says Mr bin Suroor, as immaculate in his own appearance as the yard he oversees. "No one had heard of Dubai. I told them it was in the Gulf and they all said, 'Aahh, you mean Kuwait or Saudi Arabia?', because people had heard of them. "They asked, 'where do you keep the horses, in a tent?' and 'what do you feed them, sand?' - they couldn't believe where we had come from."

Now Sheikh Mohammed, Mr bin Suroor and the racing manager Simon Crisford, are key racing figures and the US$10 million (Dh36.7m) Dubai World Cup, which will be held at the Meydan Racecourse on March 27, is one of the sport's most coveted prizes. "Wherever we go, people know about Dubai and that is thanks to the vision of Sheikh Mohammed," says the trainer. A walk around the facility with its manicured turf reveals equine athletes enjoying the five-star treatment afforded them by their status as residents of one of the world's premier racing yards.

The staff dress in the royal blue of Godolphin, while each stable bears a small plaque detailing the name and pedigree of its occupant. When a horse is handled, it wears a polished leather head collar fitted with a bronze plate bearing its name. Happy horses tend to run well, and if the 202 wins and $20 million prize money Godolphin netted last season are anything to go by, then these horses think they are in equine Disneyland.

The yard is an efficient bustle of activity. Everybody knows exactly what they should be doing and is doing it. It is this dedication and attention to detail, evident from Godolphin's roots to its highest echelons, that has made the yard a powerhouse. With 159 top-level Group One victories to date, Godolphin is in the premier league of racing stables. It has facilities in Europe and the US, and is one of the largest racing operations in the world. Yet its philosophy remains determinedly local. Sheikh Mohammed supports racing everywhere, but he is dedicated to developing the sport in the UAE. The newly opened Meydan Racecourse, which rises in place of the old Nad al Sheba track, stands testament to that.

Sheikh Mohammed has long believed the mild UAE winter is beneficial to horse development. "We have a system which we have followed successfully for 16 years," says Mr bin Suroor, a four-time English champion trainer. "If a horse is fit and sound, we bring him here for the winter. The UK and US are cold. We see the way they improve, physically and mentally. It works." As summer approaches, a decision is then made on where each horse is suited to race.

Mr bin Suroor, 42, himself is outgoing and friendly. His open manner belies the pressure he faces. "I work 12 months a year, seven days a week and in England I work from four in the morning and sometimes I get home at midnight," he says. "I travel constantly - to Europe, America, Singapore, Hong Kong. I probably go the US twice a month. When I come home my youngest children run away from me because they don't know me," he jokes.

In addition to early starts and late finishes, Mr bin Suroor also deals with the demands of media and the weight of public expectation. "Because we are Godolphin, everyone expects us to win," he says. stregoning@thenational.ae