x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Respect is reciprocal for career groom at Godolphin's stables

Trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni calls stable hand Zafar Abbas 'a key member' of the Dubai-based operation.

Zafar Abbas, right and below, may not be the focus of media attention but handler Mahmood Al Zarooni, centre, is appreciative of his role in the success of quality horses like Blue Bunting.
Zafar Abbas, right and below, may not be the focus of media attention but handler Mahmood Al Zarooni, centre, is appreciative of his role in the success of quality horses like Blue Bunting.

At first glance Zafar Abbas, a Godolphin groom, seems like a very small cog in a giant machine.

Like hundreds of others employed by Dubai's multinational racing operation, Abbas, armed with hoof pick and body brush, toils behind the scenes, working unsociable hours in the service of a succession of gleaming four-legged athletes.

He does not usually give newspaper interviews - in fact this is his first - and he has dressed up in a shirt and tie for the occasion.

If the searching eye of a television camera has captured him in its sights it is purely incidental. The focus of the media's attention is likely to be standing next to him.

A horse sweating and blowing after a major victory, or Frankie Dettori leaping from the saddle into the air, or Godolphin's founder, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, adding another win to his impressive racing CV are all more regular targets of the camera lens.

Yet despite the unassuming nature of his work, Abbas has no insecurities about his place in the world.

He knows that his quiet endeavours behind the scenes are vitally important to Godolphin and, what's more, he knows that Godolphin knows it, too.

"The salary is good with Godolphin, but the most attractive thing I find working here is the respect I am given," Abbas says. "When a horse I look after wins a race, I often find myself on the stage.

"Some trainers don't acknowledge the groom but at Godolphin I feel that the personal touch is there between the trainer, the head lad and the grooms."

Abbas, 35, is from Pakistan. He is a career groom, and started his work with horses at Lahore Race Club in Pakistan's Punjab.

He came to Dubai in 2001 to work for Godolphin. Once in the UAE he gained experience at a number of yards including Metropolitan Stables, Blue Stables and then in 2009 he transferred back to Godolphin.

He now works for the operation's Classic-winning handler, Mahmood Al Zarooni and is based at Marmoom Stables, located in the desert to the south of Dubai during the winter and at Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket, England, in the summer.

And it is not just Al Zarooni who appreciates the contribution of grooms like Abbas. Dettori, the most famous jockey in the world, knows Abbas by name.

"If he wins on a horse I am looking after, he always shakes my hand," says Abbas, who would be the first person Dettori sees after crossing the finish line.

"He knows my name and I always ask him how he is. I always feel very proud if my horse wins, it's an amazing feeling."

Now Abbas's years of 5.30am starts and twice-daily visits to the stables have been recognised with a nomination in the Groom/Rider category of the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards.

Shortlisted by a panel of judges appointed by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), Abbas has been entrusted with a number of elite performers from the Godolphin ranks. Recently he looked after the now-retired English 1000 Guineas and Irish and Yorkshire Oaks heroine, Blue Bunting.

And even though he knows when he is grooming a talented runner, Abbas says he still gets excited on race days. "I watched the Guineas from a big screen by the rail," he says. "It was a very nervous and exciting time, but when Blue Bunting won it was a very good feeling. I punched the air, it's great when your horse comes first."

He has also cared for Calvados Blues, who finished third in the 2011 Dubai Sheema Classic, and Splash Point, the 2011 UAE 2000 Guineas winner.

Abbas is now charged with the care of Godolphin's 2011 Dubai City of Gold victor and World Cup third, Monterosso, ahead of his seasonal debut.

And after years of experience with horses, Abbas says he can judge a good one.

"You can tell which ones have got class. They just have something about them," he says.

Abbas came to Dubai after following in the footsteps of his cousin, Mohammed Mumtaz, who has worked for Godolphin for 18 years. Indeed, the success of Blue Bunting could be considered a family affair for the pair.

It was Abbas who led up the filly at the 1000 Guineas and Yorkshire Oaks, and Mumtaz who led her up at Irish Oaks - a first victory in the race for Godolphin.

Al Zarooni, who put Abbas forward for the February 27 awards worth Dh692,000 across six categories, says he has no hesitation handing over some of Godolphin's most valuable horses to Abbas.

"Zafar has been with me since I started training. He is one of the key members of my team as he has always been very professional at his job, and he has been responsible for some of the better horses in my stable," he says.

"He travels the horses to the races both in England and abroad on a regular basis and while doing this I can be assured that he represents myself and Godolphin to a very high standard.

"Whether it be winning a Maiden or a Group 1, Zafar is always a very happy groom, and I cannot think of a more deserving person within my team to win this award."