Trainers, jockeys and owners are looking forward to a full season of workouts and races on the synthetic surface at Meydan Racecourse.
New UAE race season under starters orders
The UAE horse racing season opens tomorrow with trainers, jockeys and owners looking forward to a full season of workouts and races on the synthetic surface at Meydan Racecourse.
The schedule calls for 50 days of racing in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Jebel Ali, but much of the focus is on the fact that Meydan will be open all season, including 20 days of racing.
Last season, trainers were unable to expose their charges to the track's all-weather Tapeta surface until the season-ending Carnival, as contractors hurried to complete the US$1.25 billion (Dh4.6bn) construction of Meydan and its new 60,000-seat grandstand.
While some trainers harbour mixed feelings about the surface, no one doubts that conditioning horses on Tapeta from the start is a major advantage.
"Last season I used Jebel Ali's dirt to prep our horses and it was considerably deeper than in the past few years, so we had some problems coming out of those races," said Doug Watson, the three-time UAE champion trainer who was runner-up last season.
"There were horses that weren't able to run at all and we are looking forward to them, and also to see how some old favourites fare after a season on the all-weather."
Watson said he still prefers dirt tracks, but sees the benefits of the synthetic surface.
"What I can say for Meydan is that the horses came out of races well," he said. "I would rather it was dirt just because that's what I grew up with. But I think the synthetic track makes for some close finishes and gives a shot to some horses that wouldn't go on dirt."
Meydan, the world's biggest and most expensive racecourse, is located on the site of the old Nad al Sheba track, which hosted the Dubai World Cup (then worth $6m) for 14 years.
When Meydan opened in January following two-and-a-half years of construction, the prize fund for the World Cup was increased to $10m and the venue hosted 10 meetings in the 2009/10 season.
Now Meydan - which has an IMAX cinema, hotel and racing museum as well as state-of-the-art equine facilities - is the most modern horse racing venue in the world. It boasts the highest prize money and last term attracted the best jockeys, trainers and horses as a result.
The track's new surface was praised by Gillian Duffield, the four-time champion Arabian handler who trained the first horse to win at Meydan last season, No Risk al Maury. She said Tapeta was a big step for UAE racing.
"It's a massive improvement on the dirt at Nad al Sheba," she said. "The Arabians handled it very well and it was a beautiful surface with wide sweeping bends.
"I loved it from the start of the season and it's a great development, but I also race in the UK and I am used to training horses for an all-weather surface."
Prior exposure to synthetic surfaces may be an advantage, but now all local trainers and their international counterparts have the benefit of a season, albeit a short one, under their belts.
Kevin Shea, one the country's top jockeys, said the second time around at Meydan should be better for riders, too.
"I wouldn't say it's the easiest track to ride; you need to get experience on it," he said. "It rides very well and is a fair track. You can win from behind, in front, on the rail and in the middle of the track."
Shea, from South Africa, finished second in last year's Dubai World Cup as Lizard's Desire lost a photo finish to Gloria de Campeao.
"For me it was half-a-metre too short," he joked. "If it had been a touch longer I would have won the World Cup."
Martin Talty, the international manager at Dubai Racing Club, said everyone should be fully prepared this season.
"Last season was a success but we were still in that post-Nad al Sheba mindset," he said. "People were getting used to the changes, the new track, the new layout on race days, the new training track.
"Of course it was a project on a very grand scale and we had our battles in preparing a huge venue, but at the end of the day Meydan came up with the goods."
That Dubai runners went on to continued good form was evidence the track lived up to expectation, Talty said.
"The track performed well and subsequent events proved that," he said. "Horses that came here performed elsewhere.
"You only have to look at the recent Champion Stakes [at Newmarket, England] to see that. The first four home [Twice Over, Vision D'Etat, Debussy and Gitano Hernando] were all in Dubai.
"This is the first full season at Meydan, we are attracting top horses. Everybody knows what to expect and I honestly think we will have the best Carnival yet."
Those top horses, including Twice Over and Gitano Hernando, will arrive for the Carnival, which begins on January 13 and includes the UAE 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas for colts and fillies. The Asian Racing Federation has ratified the upgrades of nine races, meaning that only horses of a certain rating can enter, depending on the conditions of each race.
The Carnival ends on March 5, leaving handlers three weeks to prepare for World Cup day on March 26. There will be a total of $26m in prize money, making it the richest day of racing in the world.
Other courses in the UAE also host regular race days. Jebel Ali, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah meet on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, respectively. Racing occurs throughout the season and is generally an opportunity for lower-rated horses to race and for trainers to bring on younger or less-experienced charges.
The season begins today at Jebel Ali, which has 11 race days featuring three main contests: the Jebel Ali Stakes, the Jebel Ali Mile and the Jebel Ali Sprint. Abu Dhabi, which is predominantly for Arabian racing, hosts 12 meetings including the National Day Cup, The President Cup and the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Triple Crown.
Sharjah has the shortest race schedule with four meetings culminating with the Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi Cup.