x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

World's richest race? No worries

For Ahmed Ajtebi, routine is key to success, and today is just another day at the office for the Godolphin rider.

Final preparations were under way yesterday at Meydan Racecourse.
Final preparations were under way yesterday at Meydan Racecourse.

DUBAI // You might expect Ahmed Ajtebi to be at least a little nervous. Today is going to be an eventful day for the jockey. The 27-year-old rider for the Godolphin stable will be on Allybar in the Dubai World Cup. Ajtebi, the only Emirati jockey in the race, is riding for a record US$10 million (Dh36.7m) purse. He has a demanding schedule earlier in the day, too, riding in five races before the main event at the new Meydan track.

However, as he sipped water at the Meydan Hotel this week, there was no hint of tension. Keeping his cool, he said, is simply the best way of ensuring that he and his horses get the job done when it counts. "The horse is in some respects like a human being," he said. "He knows everything about you the moment you sit on him. I like to be relaxed with the horses, so the horse is relaxed with me." Ajtebi ordered an orange juice and picked up an apple. He said he did not battle his weight the way other jockeys do - some were sweating it out in saunas and eating little but lettuce as they tried to get their weight as low as possible for the biggest race day of the year.

Ajtebi weighs around 50kg. "I try to always remain the same weight. There is no weight limit, but the [less] you weigh, the better it is for the race. I keep light so that I can eat a little bit for energy before a race and use bigger saddles." Because Ajtebi is relaxed about what he eats, he said he could shed pounds by simply cutting back. It was just a matter of maintaining his weight until race day, he said.

His career began late, by racing standards, at the age of 22. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, suggested over dinner that the former camel jockey-turned-camel trainer should give horses a try. He did, travelling to Ireland in 2003 with two other Emiratis to gain experience. He returned that autumn for his first career ride at Nad al Sheba in Dubai while an apprentice to Ali al Raihe, a leading trainer in the UAE at the time. His first victory came the following year in Melbourne, Australia, before two successful summers in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Ajtebi is no stranger to success in races on the Dubai Word Cup card. He won both the Dubai Free and Sheema Classic at last year's event, and finished third in the UAE Derby. He has high hopes for Allybar, winner in two of three starts this year. "He has been doing very well and is worthy of his place, but there are some very strong horses in the race." With another big racing day upon him, Ajtebi is changing nothing about his daily routine. He wakes at 5am and heads to private tracks in the desert for a four-hour riding session.

"I ride several horses every morning," he said. "I will ride on one, stay perhaps 20 minutes and then move on to the next." These sessions help the trainers enhance their horses' performances. "We tell the trainer if the horse is in good form or not, if his legs are sore at the front or back or to change the bridle," Ajtebi said. "I can sense if he has an injury. "It is like a driver with a car. The driver knows if the petrol tank is empty it cannot run, or if the engine needs oil, or if something is wrong with the front or back wheels."

After his morning session he goes home to relax and sleep before heading off for an afternoon at the gym. He regulates his training regimen to stay at his target weight of 50kg. "I don't build muscle because that gains weight, but I do cardiovascular work such as running on the treadmill." After a 90-minute workout, what is left of the day is his own to spend with his wife and four children or see friends. Dinner is eaten by 7pm and he is in bed by 10pm.

Today, he said, would be just another day at the office - albeit the richest "day at the office" in racing history. "I am not changing a thing, not my style, nothing," he said. "I keep my weight the same to not make any mistakes and I ride my races like I ride at any normal meeting. Whether it is a small race or a big race, for me there is no change." @Email:loatway@thenational.ae