x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dubai racing's grandstand finish

The Meydan race course opens its doors for the first time, giving the world's media a glimpse of a venue of staggering proportions.

The grandstand at the newly built Meydan racetrack.
The grandstand at the newly built Meydan racetrack.

DUBAI // Following the sight of F1 cars hurtling round Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit last month, Dubai yesterday showed off a track that will feature horse-power of an entirely different kind.

The sporting spotlight was switched back to the emirate as the Meydan race course was presented to the media for the first time. Unlike Yas Island, which hosted a sport new to the country, Meydan is the new home of one already embedded in national history and heritage - horse racing. It is built on the site of its predecessor, Nad Al Sheeba. The old course was the home of horse racing in the Middle East and, for 14 years, the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race. Meydan has the same stunning views of the Dubai skyline and the desert beyond.

But there the comparisons end. Time will tell whether Meydan is better than the old venue but there is no doubt that it is bigger. With a capacity of more than 60,000 it can hold twice as many people. The 20,000-seat, 1.6km long grandstand is just one element of the 18 million square metre site that cost an estimated Dh10 billion (US$2.7bn). At the top of the building is the corporate area known as the Sky Bubble Lounge. It can host up to 5,000 guests and enjoys panoramic views of the racetrack to its front and the dramatic Dubai skyline to its rear.

Below that are more than 70 lavishly appointed corporate suites, each featuring restaurants, bars and grandstand seating. On a lower level is a restaurant where every table has an unobstructed view of the race course, and a flat-screen television to view replays of the action. On one end of the building is a five-star hotel with almost 300 bedrooms. It is the first hotel in the world to be integrated into a grandstand at a horse racing venue. Ninety-five per cent of the rooms have a balcony overlooking the course.

The grandstand also features a museum of horse racing and an Imax cinema. The vast majority of spectators, hotel guests and VIPs will enjoy panoramic views over the finishing straight. Those who don't will not miss the action thanks to a 107metre-long TV screen by the track, the largest in the world, inside the main building. Saeed Humaid al Tayer, the chairman of Meydan, said he expected 300,000 spectators to visit Dubai's new home of horse racing during its opening season.

"At Meydan we have facilities we have never had before and will be bringing racegoers as close to the action as possible," he said. "We are hosting the most expensive races in the world and Meydan was bench-marked against the world's top racecourses to ensure the best racing experience. "Everything we have learnt from hosting the Dubai World Cup over the past 14 years has gone into the design of Meydan.

"We even conducted a traffic impact study in the area to ensure everything would run smoothly." But the focal point of Meydan will always be the racing. The old dirt track has been replaced with a 1,750m all-weather surface set inside a 2,400m turf course. The changes are designed to broaden the appeal of the Dubai racing season to international owners and trainers. In addition a 1,200 metre straight course, a format particularly popular in Europe, will increase the options. Indeed, an extra race is set to be announced for next year's world cup festival. Meydan will see its first competitive race on January 28 with the start of the Dubai international racing carnival. The event will host nine race meetings culminating in the 15th Dubai World Cup, worth US$10million (Dh36.5m), on March 27.

According to Frank Gabriel, the chief executive of Dubai Racing Club, the layout of the racetracks was designed to create as dramatic and evocative a spectator experience as possible. "At Meydan we were able to set the start and finish line directly in front of the grandstand so that the majority of spectators will be right on top of the action. We worked hard to create this effect." In front of the grandstand is the ring where the horses and jockeys will be paraded and where presentations will be made.

The horses will access the track via a series of tunnels that pass beneath the grandstand. Beyond the tracks themselves are training areas and sites for residential, commercial and business districts that will be built over the next few years. A feature of previous world cups was the carnival atmosphere generated in the areas alongside the racecourse. There, the majority of fans would watch the races from marquees and open areas in what was known unofficially as "international village".

This feature has been retained at Meydan in the form of a vast food court that opens out on to a large concourse area where tables will be set out. Holly Young, 29, a Dubai-based events manager and racing fan from England, welcomed the new venue. "Ever since the last Dubai World Cup the anticipation of Meydan being completed has been building. Everyone has seen it being constructed and it is clear that it is a huge project.

"I'm sure the facilities will be amazing but I hope it retains the charm and friendly atmosphere of Nad Al Sheeba. "Horse racing is a royal sport with a strong local following and so expectations are high that Meydan will provide a spectacular new home." While the facilities at Meydan cater for both the luminaries of the racing world and the corporate sector, the owners said the public will be a key element of the future of Meydan.

Race meetings in Dubai attract large numbers of families who often arrive laden with picnics to make the events a real day out. This was particularly the case at the old Nad Al Sheeba course, where public entry was free, and was the primary source of its unique atmosphere. The owners of Meydan have pledged that it will continue to be the case at the new venue. Mohammed al Khayat, the commercial director of Meydan, said such popular appeal would be the secret of Meydan's success - and it was even reflected in the course's name.

"Meydan," he said, "is Arabic for meeting place." tbrooks@thenational.ae