A former camel rider has risen through the ranks in horse racing and will take to the saddle on Saturday for the world's richest horse race.
Former camel racer in home straight for Dubai World Cup
DUBAI // Ahmed Ajtebi will take to the saddle in front of his home crowd for the world's richest horse race on Saturday. But the Dubai World Cup is just one of five races the 29-year-old Emirati will compete in that day.
There is immense pressure on the Dubaian, with a US$10million (Dh36.7m) prize for the big race, in which he rides the Godolphin horse Prince Bishop, and two other $5m races on the card.
It will be his third Dubai World Cup day. Over the last two meetings he won three races and is hoping to add to that tally on Saturday.
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"You are focused on the race before and during it," he said. "I'm only thinking of the job at hand. Once I cross that line, I feel normal again."
He started, aged six, in camel racing, continuing for eight years, and by the ripe old age of 14, his racing career, it seemed, had run its course. But seven years later he was back in the saddle, after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, asked him to return to racing - this time on a horse.
"He told me he had the best horses and local trainers," Mr Ajtebi recalled. "All they needed was a jockey from the country."
In just a few weeks, he swapped the azure skies of the Emirates for the cold winds of the Curragh, the home of Irish horse racing.
Over four months he was put through the paces by John Oxx, the trainer behind some of the world's most successful horses.
"In the beginning it wasn't that difficult. But there were a lot different rules in comparison to camel racing," Ajtebi said.
He initially found the rigidity of horse racing strange. The idea that jockeys and race cards were set a month before races was in stark contrast to the last-minute world of camel racing. But after 30 competitive races and further training in Melbourne, he rode his first winner, Al Tharb, at Geelong in Australia. "I remember that well. It's not easy to forget something like that," he said.
The winning streak continued. Over two summers in South Africa with the well-known trainer, Mike de Kock, he won 19 times from 85 rides.
The risk of injury does not worry him. "Too many sports are dangerous. There are lots of sports out there that can be harmful, like motorsport," he said.
But unlike motorsports, where drivers are strapped in with seat belts and fire-retardant suits, jockeys have only a helmet and padded shirt to protect them from the galloping pack should they fall.
His fellow jockey Tadgh O'Shea, who will compete against Ajtebi in Saturday's sixth race, the Dubai Duty Free, said accidents can happen. "You're on a horse's back so you don't know what will happen," the 29-year-old Irishman said.
Last week O'Shea, who spends his winters racing in Dubai, walked away from a fall at Jebel Ali racecourse. "If you're going at 40mph [64 kph], you'd be very fortunate to walk away without any breaks," he said.
O'Shea has spent the past nine winter seasons racing in Dubai. Each year was spectacular, he said, but Meydan has added an extra buzz to his calendar.
"The jockeys and horses enjoy it," he said. "It's very fair and there are a lot of runners."
The roar of the crowd is deafening but on the final straight at Meydan, his eyes will be firmly on the finishing line.
"Naturally, we are all very competitive. You're going to hear the crowd but can't make out what they are saying. We're up against some of the best horses in the world. It's fantastic to be a part of it."