Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid: Horse racing has come home
My very earliest memory was galloping in the desert, seated in the saddle in front of my late father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. I remember the rhythm of Saglawi, the white stallion my father loved so much, and I remember how the sky and the sand rolled with the stallion’s long strides across the dunes. But most of all, I remember my father’s arm around my waist, and a feeling of utter joy and peace in my soul.
This is who I am. This is who we are. We are people of the horse, and the horse, that has given so much to the world through the centuries, as a means of transport, as a provider that helped to farm and plough the fields, as a vehicle that carried men and the hopes of nations to war, and finally as a valuable companion and participant in sports.
The horse came from here, from the Arabian Peninsula. And just as much as I and the people of Dubai belong to the horse, the horse belongs to us.
It was the horse that helped in travel, and saved one’s life in battle. The Prophet Mohammad, Peace be Upon Him, even said that a man is rich when he has a mare and a date garden.
Horses were what men aspired to own. If you were to read the Quran, the words of the Prophet (PBUH) and the story of his life, it would be easy to understand the value of horses.
They are unlike other animals, they bless the house of their owner, are the pride of every Arab and a symbol of strength, magnanimity and power.
God said in his Holy Book: “Provide them with all the means of power and with horses,” and what the Prophet (PBUH) said: “Blessings are tied to the forelocks of horses till Judgment Day”.
People of the desert are proud, and discreet. Open displays of emotion are often not our way. And yet, a human needs a subject for which to express these feelings, and emotionally the beings who received the most obvious public shows of affection were our animals. Our horses, and camels, for men and women alike.
Often I have seen a man or woman steel themselves for the death of a loved one, this strength belies a broken heart, but it is a display and attestation to bowing to what is the will of God.
And often these same pillars of strength cry tears of longing for a horse or camel that has died, and beyond those tears, that flow so easily for that being that has past, is the pain that they feel for all that they have lost but cannot freely express.
In the Bedouin culture, much of our love of nature is evident. The men dance and move their necks, swaying to the music as the camel who strides across the sand with grace that would by all logic elude such an enormous lumbering beast.
And the women who dance and toss their long, black hair from side to side, mimic the flick of a lovely mare’s head, and the long, black hair, that would cover huge black eyes, as a forelock would shade the long lashes of a horse.
In what lives in our world we see beauty, and nature has given us plenty. It is perhaps one of the principal differences in culture that I have seen between East and West, and that is that we recognise one for their natural beauty, but we still attest to a higher power, we still seek to copy nature, rather than create what is man made and believe in it being true.
A man can lie, but believing his own untruths is the stupidest mistake of all.
For me, and for so many others I know, it was the horse that was most supremely beautiful. The horse whose tight tendons looked like bow strings, and mass of round muscles over its quarters that were soft to my hand, and made me wonder at the power it possessed. The slope of its shoulders, that met in a vulnerable chest that was soft and creative, with a midriff that was often parted with a swirl or two of round, spiralled hairs.
So different from the camels that were not flighty but affectionate, and wise as they were gruff and unforgiving.
Sometimes a man chooses what he wants of life, and at times then he may waver, perhaps because that thing may be a whim. But when life chooses what it wants from a man, it is an undeniable force. That is how it was with horses and the Arabs.
Arab history is so ornate, so unending and so beginning, perhaps because it started at the dawn of time.
The thread at which I choose to start is woven into my life, the part of my life that has given me most meaning.
The Bedouin horse breeders kept the blood of their desert steeds absolutely pure, and the mare evolved as the Bedouin’s most valued possession. The harsh desert environment ensured that only the strongest and the fittest continued of breed. This in itself made the Arabian a horse of very specific characteristics. But as time marched on it is the way of the desert, that the sand dunes moved gently, and the palm branches swayed gently in the wind, the Arab World continued just as it had for centuries.
The Bedouins speak of their association with the Arabian horse going as far back as 3000 years BC, when Box, the Great Great Grandson of Noah, came to take a stallion called Hoshaba, and a mare called Baz, from the Bedouins of the Empty Quarter.
Poetry, chivalry, pedigree, magnanimity, prestige and generosity are the established values of Arab chivalry, but the past is past.
When the Arab knight disappeared, his horse remained and, for a while, even the Arab horse was on the verge of extinction. If we leave economy, technology, pioneering and horses to others, what will be left for us?
I believe so strongly in my affinity with horses that I would go so far as to say that those who don’t understand the reason behind our keen interest in horses won’t understand what we’re trying to do.
We want to regain our pioneering status – and not only in economy, technology and excellence.
So many times I was asked what it would mean to have a horse, a great horse, and there was no easy answer to express the joy it would give an Arab, a Muslim, to own such an animal.
The closest I can get to try to explain would be to start by telling you this tale.
In ancient times, there were two famous Arab tribes, the Abs and Dhibyan. The leader of the tribe of Abs owned a mare who was renowned throughout Arabia for her stunning speed. Her name was Dahes.
There was another creature that was the subject of poems by the camp fires, a mare belonging to the tribal chief of Dhibyan, and her name was Al Ghabra.
There was a long-standing dispute between the two tribes about which mare was fastest.
The Arabs did not only look on their horses as an indispensable arm in battle, they were a source of pride.
Heaven had smiled at you when God gave you a steed that was swift. You would be remembered in eulogies and poetry for centuries to come as the owner of a rare creature. A great horse would elevate a beggar to the ranks of royalty, you could be dashing and noble yourself, but the noble horse was a symbol of your greatness.
On the appointed day, which the speed of the two mares would be tested, the leader of the Dhibyan was worried in his heart that his mare Al Ghabra could be beaten by Dahes.
He could not possible bear that this would be revealed, and decided that along the appointed track two of his tribesmen would lie in wait for the mares.
When they approached, the men would jump up from their hiding places and spook Dahes. He gave them instructions that if they saw, Al Ghabra was in command of the race then they should do nothing, they should only act if was clear that Dahes would win.
The race started and Al Ghabra shot forward like an arrow into the lead. All the tribes were assembled and keenly followed the course of the race.
Following their instructions, when the two mares came to the bushes where the two young members of the Dhibyan lay concealed, they jumped up and waved their arms.
Dahes was startled and propped her stride in order to veer wide of them, nearly unseating her rider. By the time he had regained control and direction, Al Ghabra had a commanding lead. One that Dahes could not reclaim. Al Ghabra won the race.
The leader of Bani Abs was furious, for he had a feeling that the race had been fixed. He knew that if not Dhibyan, the men from Taghleb, who held paramount alliance with them, must have spoiled her chances.
Thus, the bloody war known as the War of Dahes and Al Ghabra began.
Historians would reveal that the balance of this bloody battle swung from one side to the other for 40 years. Finally, the leaders of other tribes move to interceded. There is a wealth of poems that call for a stop to “the bloody war”.
Over 40 years, and the thousands of lives lost on both sides many will remember that this war was started by defending the honour of one’s mares.
Such the Arabs hold their mares in value. Such are the measures which are set to defend honour. Today Arabs will not fight for 40 years over mares, but they still hold them in equally high esteem. A great colt or stallion was held in high esteem because he brought the promise of being the father of many great horses.
Bedouins would travel endless expanses of desert with their mares risking total destruction just to breed them to a good stallion. Still, the mares were held in reverence, and in a sentimental sense they were the ones who held the key to greatness.
A mother could produce the jewel, while a good stallion could immeasurable improve upon the quality of the mares he was bred to through his progeny.
When I imagine Arab knights and military leaders, I see them riding their horses, leading armies all round the world, and writing wonderful poems that speak of great ideas and valour.
But the time of such great exploits and glorious days is over. Nowadays, Arab horses no longer carry great knights and leaders. When the Sun was setting on the pioneering exploits of the Arabs and their mastery of horses, it was rising in the West on their horses of Arab origin.
It’s known that all thoroughbreds in England are the descendants of Arab horses, the world’s oldest horse ancestry. This was done either through direct imports or by crossbreeding three famous stallions, Byerley Turk, Godolphin Barb – referring to a horse of Moroccan origin, bred from the Arab horses that the Arabs used to conquer Andalusia and also known as Arab Godolphin – and Darley Arabian.
At the Battle of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, what most people do not know is that an Arab symbol was there in that decisive battle.
Bonaparte was riding the white Arab thoroughbred Marengo, while Wellington was riding Copenhagen, a descendant of the Arab thoroughbred Darley Arabian.
To my Grandfather Sheikh Saeed, and my father Sheikh Rashid, the Godolphin was a horse that had come 200 years before from the Arabian Peninsular, near the Empty Quarter, where Liwa was. It would be another quarter of a century before I was born, but the stories of great race horses were still being told by the fire, such is the way of the desert, stories and poems are timeless as the fire that is born again each night and the stars that clutter the night sky bring you dreams.
I listened to the stories of the Godolphin Arabian, and the Darley Arabian, and I dreamed one day that I would own a great racehorse, and I hoped through that racehorse I would make my family and my country proud.
It was 1959, on my first trip to England, that I realised it was my ambition to bring the modern sport horse, a descendant of our Arabians, back to my country, and to put the Middle East on the map of racing as the heartbeat of horse sports once again.
I was a young boy, and my father, Sheikh Rashid, took me with him in the summer to England. He had an official trip there, and he went primarily to facilitate the building of the airstrip in Dubai.
My father wanted to build an airstrip in Dubai in the sabkha were the airport is now, at the time the only aircraft that landed in Dubai would land in the creek.
The British had denied the request for an airstrip, saying that there was a landing strip in Sharjah, where the British Base was, so Dubai did not need an airport.
My father was determined, arguing that he knew what Dubai needed best, and he insisted on it. We won permission to build the airstrip on that trip.
My father also took me to see England, but the most exciting place that he took me was Newmarket. He told me all about the history of racing in England. It was probably the Romans who first held properly organised horse races there, but the first officially recorded race was in 1377, in Newmarket. Ever since then, this town has been known as the home of English horse racing.
It is probably one of the most influential places in the sport of racing, as well as Kentucky, only to be overtaken now by Dubai.
It was King Charles II who most contributed to the building of Newmarket as a horse racing and breeding capital, but it was Queen Anne in 1711 who created what is the most well-known English racecourse at Ascot, Windsor.
I greatly enjoyed seeing these two places at such a young age made me sure, that I wanted to bring this great sport back to my country, and give it back to my people.
I knew even at that age, that it could not be a hobby, it must be a real return to our rightful place as Arabs to mean anything. And I wanted Dubai and her people to be recognised for the contribution that we could make to racing, and for us to once again be the guardians of this sport.
For it is the sport of our grandfathers, and should be the sport for our children.
The main occupation that my brothers and I were brought up to enjoy was our love for horses. This is a true Bedouin, and Arab heritage.
My father taught us to love horses as we do our family, he taught us that we should participate and practise this art form and sport, knowing about all that it is a code of chivalry.
My brothers, Sheikh Maktoum and Sheikh Hamdan, managed strings of racehorses from my father’s stables.
They were both widely recognised horseman throughout Arabia. They were recognised both for their training and for the exceptional horses they owned.
Sheikh Maktoum had a horse that he could vault onto by running up behind him. That horse would inhale deeply and burst his girth if anyone other than Maktoum attempted to ride him. I had seen many casualties over the years.
My father made sure that they started by competing against each other, and then there were challenges with other stables in nearby Emirates.
Later, we challenged the other Gulf States. As the third son of my father, I had third choice of the horses. It was sometimes a case of hand-me-downs, but with horses it’s not really that way in the desert, and because we had no ponies all the horses were one size, so there was no case of outgrowing them or sharing them, it basically fell down to me getting the third string.
I would say that we had the top horses in Arabia, there was a grey stallion called Hadeer belonging to Maktoum, and Hamdan had another horse called Karawan, which means stone crow, a very fast bird.
Maktoum had a beautiful chestnut mare with a star, called Al Oodeh, and she descended from the Widthen Family.
Hamdan also had Abiyah, and she descended from the Abeyan breed.
So, I had a look around in the stables at the horses that were belonging to my brothers and sisters, and there was a very nice mare that had been injured, nobody really wanted her.
She was never tried as a racehorse, but after taking a good look at her, I was sure that she had the quality to be.
Sawdah Um Halag – her name meant “black one with the earring”. Normally, when Arabs love their horses they put a golden ring on the ear, like jewellery on the ear of a woman. And also sometimes they put gold and silver around their horses’ necks just like a beautiful women, would wear a necklace.
The saddle we called Ma ‘araga. The beauty of it is in the sides that are made of wool and leaf gold, just to beautify the horses.
Sawdah caught her earring on something and she tore it off, she had the tip of her right ear split at the top where the earring had been, and that was where she got her name, Sawdah Um Halag.
My father announced there was a prep race, to be followed by a real race in Jumeirah, in some four months time.
Now my planning began in earnest. My first stop was my mother, advice and money for the herb market was required. I fidgeted in front of her as I explained the problem that the mare had.
My mother marched straight to the stables, with me running to keep up. She bent down next to the mare, looking at the angles of her feet and joints. Then, she stood up, and I was telling her, “But it’s there, the tendon, Mother, as big as my head! That’s what you have to fix. What are you looking at the rest for?”
She smiled and gave me my first lesson in medicine that day. “That,” she said, pointing at the leg, “is most certainly where the pain has come to be.”
She went on to explain to me that pain was a result of overloading, we had to look for the source, or in some cases she explained perhaps a host of small reasons that all added up to one big one.
She explained that we needed to trim the hooves, she checked her back, and the mare was basking in her mistress’ attention.
Finally, she assigned me a remedy, Anzaroot, Moomyan, Qumaan, put the money in my hand and sent me with a minder to the bustling herb market.
Just before I was out the door, she called me. “On your way home pass by the house of your father’s friend and ask him what to put on a joint and a tendon, Mohammad, it’s always good to get a few opinions.”
I knew the man she referred to was an amazing trainer, he could change any horse. In early days of warring tribes, horses had to be taught to drop to the ground in mid-battle and lie still for the rider to use them as a rifle rest. He had fought on horseback.
I went to the house, and called loudly, “Salaam Allikum, peace be upon you”. And the old man stood up, “Allikum Al Salaam, and on you be peace, my son.”
He motioned for me to sit, and brought me dates and coffee, which he served all the while inquiring of news, of my family, and our neighbours, asking me had I seen any birds, or met strangers that bore news from afar.
I sat down and kicked the sand in front of me, answering his questions. When the pleasantries had passed he fell silent and looked at me with expectation. So I took a deep breath and began: “Sir you have fought with horses before, and you have been long distances on them. I have one who is injured what can I do for her?”
As I described the injury for him he listened. He rose and said he must see her.
I followed him back to our stables. I was surprised that my mother must have known what he would do, for when I ran quickly to the house to get him coffee and dates. I found she had left them out for me covered with a cloth.
When I returned he was still examining the mare’s leg. Then he explained to me, one must take harmal, and curcum or turmeric powder, and sider. The harmal and sider would have to be dried in the Sun. Then crushed into powder. The turmeric powder would be mixed with water and given to the mare orally, or mixed in her feed, for it killed inflammation.
One should take the crushed harmal and sider, and place them in a bowl to be mixed. One added to them, flour to hold the mixture to the leg. Also one added salt to draw out the inflammation. And olive oil to seal it, with a small amount of hot water.
This poultice would be put on the leg for some months everyday, and washed off in the morning. He finished by saying: “Your mother will have told you that the mare needs rebalancing?” I nodded quickly, so he smiled and said: “Then I know she will come in the evening after finishing her chores and show you how to do this.
“Watch carefully what she does and listen carefully to what she says must be done, and learn how to cut the hoofs. None of the Arabs knows this better than she.”
I was pleased and proud, for those ingredients were exactly what my mother had told me to buy. And I left quickly to the bustling herb market to make my purchases.
When I returned, I went straight to our cooking area to make my mixture, and carried it back to the stables. I was in the stable applying the poultice to the mare’s leg when I heard screaming and shouting from the cooking area, and the sound of my mother’s voice.
I groaned out loud. I knew instinctively my mother must have seen her kitchen after I prepared my medicine. I decided I had better stay in the stables a little longer.
I spent more time in the stables, and I had grown more serious, especially now that Um Halag was in my care. I had applied the medicine without fail. The swelling had subsided within the first 10 days of giving the turmeric powder orally to Um Halag. The leg looked much cleaner as well with the help of the sider poultice.
The tendon was still ugly looking, and I kept applying the powder daily for three months. I also never stopped working her; not hard work but I walked her for hours. I had started progressively but by the end of three months we walked her four or five times a day for long periods.
I could see that she was much sounder. The tendon would always be ugly I guessed, but better the ugly tendon that’s strong, than the pretty one that’s weak.
My father advised me to start by riding a lead horse with her at first, and leading her by the hitchma. (A hitchma is not exactly a bridle but like a hackamore over her nose.)
The sea was a good distance from where we were living in Zabeel, so we used to leave in the morning and spend all day on the beach. I would swim her, catching hold of her mane as she lifted her head above the water and exercise her on the white beach.
We would have lunch together there, her and I and our friends. She would happily plunge her nose in the desert herbs and grasses I had picked in the mornings and brought with us. She would grind her black jaws and look up from time to time thoughtfully as she finished a mouthful, then lower her head once more. She always pointed the damaged leg out in front of her as she ate, like an elegant ballet dancer limbering up.
When it was time to leave, I would hop on the lead horse and whistle to her, and she would follow happily behind me, until we approached an area where there would be cars and I reattached the hichma. She seemed to enjoy the return to the stables at night almost as much as she did her days out of it. She would stand quietly eyes a little glazed as she dozed while I brushed the sand and salt from her coat, occasionally she would flicker an ear back to pick up on a change of tone in my incessant chatter.
She rested a back leg, and would point the bad leg in front of her, as if to remind me that the pain had been there. When I would finish with the poultice and fabric bandages I had gotten from my mother. I would stand there trying to find something else to do, any excuse not to leave the magic of the stables by night. And to avoid going to school the next morning.
My father had seen the horses that were being prepared in the stables now. Sheikh Maktoum had prepared the mare Oodeh descending from the Widthen family, and Sheikh Hamdan was also working on Haamdaniah.
I was happy with my mare Um Halag, the poultice that I was still putting on her at night had worked similar to a blister, and the tendon was good and strong. She had done more walking than she had needed, but I was at least sure of the leg now. I had started to trot and canter her gradually, and she was starting to look like a racehorse.
News of the challenge had spread far and wide, and many Bedouins were to come from all over the Emirates.
Among the Bedouins it is an unspoken custom that after glad tidings or a period of prosperity that the head of a community or Sheikh would hold an event such as this.
As I have said before, life is so fragile, that in our communities nothing is better accepted than time spent together, and celebrations for the entire community.
It is an opportunity for the Sheikh to share his food, to give out prizes for the winners who otherwise may have needed the help, and doing it through a competition takes out the shame of giving because the one who receives feels that they have earned it, rather than being pitied.
It is a chance to make alliances, and to renew ties that have been broken, and if there is a rift or ill feeling between people then they can attend of their own accord and seek to bridge the divide, or they will be invited which is an indication from the Sheikh that bygones are bygones.
To the Bedouin there are no boundaries, there are only expanses, which is how we see the world. My grandfathers and I have always seen as the things that men no greater or less than us have drawn on a piece of paper, the more complicated the men, the more blurred the line.
We have never seen borders as a thing to stop us from being ourselves. Indeed, we could be in our own home, or have pitched a camp on a hunting trip, when guests arrive we are obligated to share what we have.
And better still as we travel, is to be the providers of joy, and to create a situation where we were able to give, even if it were that we gave the last of what we have ourselves, be it food while our children starve, this would be done for a visitor, for a stranger, for they are our guests. The more we show to them, the more that we provide for them, the better and truer we have been to ourselves.
Hospitality is paramount to our culture, and just as my family and the people of Dubai all felt that this was their invitation to all around, each house cooked for the incoming tribesmen and women.
Animals were gathered and slaughtered in preparation for the event. Weeks in advance, the women were preparing and mixing the perfumes to scent their guests after the meals. And digging into stocks of precious oud or frankincense to offer.
Poetry was prepared by the men, and practised and refined in the evening majlis to be read out to the visiting Sheikhs. And alternatively the guests would send word of a great horse that they had that could not be beaten. And messages of goodwill and fraternity were passed back and forth by word of mouth, which added to the heady atmosphere of excitement.
My father had ordered a blade to smooth a two kilometre strip of flat ground on the beach at Jumeirah, and the competitors for the neighbouring Emirates had set their tents on the beach and camped there with their horses.
The ladies of Jumeirah were cooking for the guests, and poems were made for the visiting Sheikhs. It was a festive atmosphere, flags had been put up at the start and finish lines. We made much to decorate the scene with the little that we had, but it was the people that proved most decorative, and the atmosphere of anticipation that proved most tantalising.
This pre-race sensation is one that would live with me for the rest of my life, and the wish to recreate it in many years to come in the Dubai World Cup, would spring from a conviction that I felt at the time, this air of hospitality, this feeling of excitement in a desert of stillness, this celebration of our most prized animal encompassed the very best of our identity. It was and is the essence of being Arab, and being Bedouin.
I arrived there the week before the race. Maktoum and Hamdan sent me ahead to set up camp for the three of us. Their faces broke into broad grins when they found that I had pitched our camp at the finishing line. We needed to be up early in the morning to tend to our horses.
That night, I walked the two kilometre strip with my mare on a lead rope, talking to her of the great race to come. Tomorrow would be our chance to prove ourselves to my father and all his friends. I noticed that the ground the blade had cut on the inside was good, but at the edges of it, it was deep, like tiny sand dunes. It would not be to ones advantage to leave the middle that was for sure.
The morning of the race dawned after a sleepless night of dreams and anticipation. I woke up and blinked sleep out of my eyes. Then I blinked again thinking that perhaps it had blurred my vision, but it had not... Thabaab. A thick blanket of mist lay over Jumeirah beach.
The Sheikhs and competitors had gathered over coffee and dates to discuss the weather. I hurriedly pulled the old kandura that I had cut short, over my head, and washed performed my ablutions and prayed. Then I hurried to my mare, there was poultice to wash off and breakfast to give her before I could go and listen to the news. I had just finished and ran to sit at my father’s feet. One of his friends handed me some bread and coffee, the race was on. It was not dangerous fog they had decided, you could see 50 metres in front of you. My nerves jangled and my stomach turned somersaults. The race was on!
I went to get my mare and walk her before the race. Every now and then she took one dancing step, but on the whole walked sensibly beside me. Her muscles rippled under her midnight black coat. I had combed her mane down with water, and it lay long and black with the ends singed red by the Sun. Others were also walking, and she seemed to be sizing them up just as I was. It was Sheikh Maktoum who had trained Al Oodeh min Al Widthen, but he had asked Saluma Al Aamiri to ride his mare. He himself had nearly always ridden in these races, but today the stakes were high and he had chosen Saluma for his weight. There were other’s many others but I was sure it was Oodeh we would have to beat.
Finally they ordered us to mount, and we all made our way to the start. The starter stood there with his pistol raised above his head, and kandura flapping in the wind, I fixed my eyes on his trigger finger trying to make out the muscles that would pull the trigger.
I spoke to Um Halag softly, and in my peripheral vision I could see her one torn ears flicker back and forward in response. I crouched forward behind her massive neck, leaving a loop in my reins so that I would not catch her mouth when she bolted forward, my fingers threaded through her thick mane. Suddenly, a loud crack ripped through the morning mist, and a huge cheer went down the beach, we were off.
My breath caught in my throat, as Urn Halag surged forward with such great power I gasped in wonder. I steadied myself on her slippery back, for I raced without a saddle, only a ma’araga, which I had purchased to bring out the beauty my mare.
All around me horses surged forward like a great tidal wave, shouts of the jockeys and whoops filled the air. It did not take more than a furlong for the field to settle into what looked like a pattern, and out ahead of me like a ghost in the mist I was just in time to see Saluma with Al Oodeh disappearing. He must be looking for an early lead, and meaning to use the mist as a blanket.
I decided not to wait with the others and save my horse I would stalk him, he was experienced enough to know how much he could push Sheikh Maktoum’s mare, and I could not afford to let him out of my sight.
I urged Um Halag with my legs, and as if with pure joy after her time in rehabilitation she leapt forward to chase after him. My heart swelled with pride. What could be more wonderful than to ask a horse and feel them give you all they had so willingly?
Saluma had what must have been a five-length lead. Just as the mist had helped him create it, now it helped me to creep slowly up behind him without threatening him too much.
He must have felt something from his mare, for the sound of hooves and cheering that was accompanied by the crashing waves of the sea and would have drowned out anything else. He looked behind to see me clinging on Um Halag, whose head was now near Oodeh’s flank breathing great deep breaths from her large blood red nostrils.
The look on his face was one of such surprise I had to bite down hard on my tongue not to let out a peal of laughter.
He was favouring the middle to the right side of the track. I had two horses’ width between me and the deeper sand. I was waiting for the flag to appear in the mist when suddenly I saw him start to push, had he seen it before me? I looked up in confusion and tried to make it out, it should be near now, then he made his move, seeing me try to come up from the inside he gently began to drift me towards the deep sand.
All at once I saw the flag too, there was no time to go around him, and I could only struggle forward. I asked Um Halag for all she had, and she definitely gave it to me.
Floundering in the deeper sand, she made up the two lengths he had taken, my heart was in my mouth as I drew up along side him, but in the bobbing of heads Oodeh had us by one. Behind me, Sheikh Hamdan came flying in third place to be followed by a line of horses. And Hadeer was forth.
What a win for my father’s stables. Al Oodeh min Al Widthen was now unbeaten in sixteen races. We dominated the results table. I felt like a king as my two older brothers ran to pat me on the back, and my father’s friends walked around Um Halag and regarded her critically as I walked her down. I patted her until my hand tingled.
My father walked up and smiled. “Well done, Mohammad, well done.”
If only this moment could last forever.
That evening was magical. The air seemed to be full of energy and happiness. Flames reached for the skies and mesmerised the men who sat talking around them. Every now and then, the girls who were all adorned in brightly-coloured dresses were hypnotic as they swung their hair round and round in unison to the beat of the rababa.
My mother had prepared a feast of delicious food, and I had been starving.
That evening during the festivities, Sheikh Maktoum and Sheikh Hamdan and I all sat together close to the fire. Both of them had staff, and a string of horses.
We decided that the mare had proved herself beyond all doubt.
By the campfires, the men spoke of experience beating her, they said had I not gotten caught in the deep sand she would have streaked past Oodeh. They were right, we all knew, nobody blamed me, everyone was proud of my first race. I felt a tiny tinge of regret that I had not known, but nothing could take away from the swell of pride I felt in my chest when Sheikh Hamdan would add the mare to his string.
Who could have imagined that the older brother I revered would want a mare that I had produced? I would make more horses to race for my brother’s string, I hoped. I had proved myself.
That night, when my brothers had all slept, I rose and walked over to my mare, she lay legs gathered to herself in the sand, and she raised her head and whickered a quiet greeting as I approached.
I stood in front of her and traced the shape of the white star that lengthened into a thin strip on her black face. I let my fingers trace the whirl of hairs in the middle of her forehead. And she sighed deeply. I bent to kiss her on her torn ear and then sat down huddled against her stomach to tell her that she would be going to Hamdan now.
That is the way of the desert – filial piety is above all paramount. It was an honour that he wanted her, but it did nevertheless make my heart feel as though it had been punctured, in my chest.
I thanked her for all she had done for me, over and over again. I spoke to her of my gratitude to her for sharing this experience with me, for the race itself was more than just a sporting event.
It had been an outpouring of love and affection towards my father and my family from our people, and from our neighbouring tribes and Emirates.
Nothing mattered to me more than this, I knew somewhere on the same strip of beach my father would be thanking the Almighty for the same popular support he was receiving. I knew also, he would only take it as a sign that he was serving his people as was his duty, I knew it would spur him only to work yet harder.
Um Halag, my dearest friend in the world, she had helped me to prove to him, and his friends, that I too had shoulders wide enough to bear any weight my father chose to give me, for that I could have never thanked her enough that night.
Finally we both drifted off. I slept curled up in her stomach, with a smile on my face.
The next day, I had waited to leave to the stables a little behind the others. I arrived just when I knew my brother’s friends would have finished helping him with the stable chores, and I dismounted Um Halag who I had brushed that morning until she shone. I had given her mixture of dried lemon and Henna with olive oil to drink that would take the soreness out of her muscles. And the walk had loosened her gait. I walked down the stable isle to her box like a peacock, as the boys lined either side of the stables to watch her.
This was nearly as good as the race had been.
Having checked the sand was clean and banked comfortably in the corners of the box, I led Um Halag in, giving her one big hug before I closed the door.
Then, I scratched my head. Now what? Sheikh Hamdan had said that I could choose another horse from him, so I walked down the isles and looked at them. I would take my time, patience was everything, and I would watch them all to know what they could do before I made my choice.
I was shy because I could not ask him for a good one, I had no one to help me, and it would have been a waste. It would have to be another that was not proven. After a few days, I had been watching one of his horses. She had been raced before, and she had one or two problems that were similar to Um Halag. So I waited until I saw that Sheikh Hamdan was in a good mood, and then I asked him for her. He smiled and led her to me.
Her name was Rumanieh. We were back in business.
And this was how the Dubai World Cup began, a race that started with a flat blade across the beach sand of Dubai, has grown to a world-class event that crowns the place of Dubai in the racing world.
When my brothers and I first stepped into the international racing world was very weak indeed. Dubai, through Godolphin and Darley, has created jobs, and even protected the racing industry to a very large extent from the two recessions that ravaged many parts of the world.
It is not just the depth and the numbers that have solidified our place, but it has been our active part over many many decades that has shaped the racing world, and carved Dubai a place at the head of the table.
I founded the Racing Post newspaper, and we stepped in to save Channel Four’s involvement in racing.
Godolphin stables is Dubai’s stables, we have had more than 2000 winners internationally, and we near 200 Group 1 winners, in 12 countries. And we have had 55 Classic winners world wide.
That is the story of where Godolphin came from, a stables that my brothers, and my sons and I have built together over the years, came from a small black mare called Sawdah Urn Halag. But more than that, the Dubai World Cup came from the strip of Beach sand in Jumeirah.
Every year I feel that this race is just what it was all those years ago, a chance to celebrate, a chance to host guests far and wide, and a chance to share joy, laughter, and give thanks.
I hope and pray that there are winners from all over the world this Dubai World Cup, that means more to me than anything, for I already know that our people in Dubai are already winners many times over, and that racing is a sport they can call their own with great pride.
And it is a sport that they will be guardians of and now pass on to their children, just as my father passed it on to me.
Updated: March 26, 2016 04:00 AM