x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Saddling up for the big day of the biggest night with jockey Kevin Shea

The Dubai World Cup is an event like none other in horse racing. Jockey Kevin Shea deals with the pressure by approaching the world's richest meet as he would any other, so here is a glimpse of a normal day in his racing life.

Jockeys review tapes before a race. Photographs by Mike Young / The National
Jockeys review tapes before a race. Photographs by Mike Young / The National

Dubai World Cup night is "just another day" for top jockey Kevin Shea.

Or so he tells himself as the world's best thoroughbreds compete in the racing industry's richest meet, an evening that marks the culmination of a year of preparation, and many months of dedicated training on Meydan Racecourse by Shea.

At the end of the evening, US$27.2 million (Dh99.9m) of prize money will have been won, including US$10m - the biggest purse in the racing world - for the night's headline race, the Dubai World Cup.

Reputations will have been made and sometimes lost, while a new hierarchy will be established among the world's top thoroughbreds, jockeys, trainers and stables.

So you'd expect some pressure on Shea, a veteran South African-born jockey who has been racing for 33 of his 48 years.

"The Dubai World Cup is just another meeting," he says. "It's a big one, but it's just another day."

Big is an understatement. Since the meet was established in 1996, the combination of the prize money and the quality of the thoroughbreds invited to race has gained it a formidable reputation.

"This has got to be the Olympic Games of horse racing. That's the bottom line," Shea says. "This is the biggest race meeting in the world. It's the best horses around and the prize money is good, too.

"Everyone around the world, if their horse is good enough to get an invitation, you know you're riding proper horses.

"It's a lot of money, but it's just a normal race. When you boil it down, it's just another race day."

This evening is one towards which Shea's stable, Mike de Kock Racing, has been working for a year, since they began selecting the pool of horses for the 2012 Dubai World Cup night around the time the 2011 meet was taking place.

Shea has been based in Dubai since early December to prepare those horses and has been spending a chunk of the year in the UAE since 2003, banking on local knowledge to provide an extra edge to his efforts.

"It's more than four months' preparation. I'm with the horses every single day - I know them all, all their habits," he says. "You have to get to know when it's going wrong and get a feel for their characters so you know if they're in a good mood or a bad mood."

The stable expects about a dozen of its horses to race in the Dubai World Cup meet tonight. For the last week, all the fitness and training work is over and both the horses and jockeys aim for a quieter week, trying to ensure no last-minute injury ruins a year of preparation.

While Shea dismisses the impact of the stakes on his approach to the race, he says the horses don't really react to the occasion either. "There are a lot more people, so they must realise, but, for most horses, unless there's a lot of noise or a big tent is flapping in the wind, it makes no difference.

"For me, I like big days. I really, really look forward to big days. It's what you dream about.

"And absolutely, this is the biggest in the world."

jhenzell@thenational.ae