x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

When Azari put Dubai on the world map

A certain cute little chestnut colt's performance in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 1991 was something of a landmark in Dubai's history.

Pat Valenzuela works Arazi at Churchill Downs in 1991. The jockey described the horse's run as 'the fastest turn of foot I've ever experienced'. Chris Wilkins / AFP
Pat Valenzuela works Arazi at Churchill Downs in 1991. The jockey described the horse's run as 'the fastest turn of foot I've ever experienced'. Chris Wilkins / AFP

Well back into last century at Churchill Downs, the humongous horse track in Kentucky in the United States, a mysterious proper noun began popping up. We amateur geographers in the media room circa 1992 knew little about this "Dubai" although I do believe everybody did spell it correctly. We did not know much about what it meant or just where it reposed on the globe. It did have some sort of mystical sound, as if it might gleam with castles.

One excellent horse-racing writer called it "a pristine country on the [Arabian] Gulf where the roads are perfect, the schools and hospitals are free and there is no income tax".

And while he erred some in there - emirate, not "country" — many of us Yanks, forever flanked by oceans, probably would have remained completely oblivious to this "Dubai" for several more years were it not for a cute little chestnut colt with a blaze from the middle of his forehead to his right nostril.

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In those ancient days of no internet, no mobile phones and scant 24-hour news channels — how ever did we persist with breathing? — Arazi made us know about Dubai.

The previous November, Arazi had come as an interloper to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where he blew the doors off the thing with a charge so searing that it counted as singular. He faced his first left-turn dirt course and an outside post of No 14 but, as Paul Moran of New York's Newsday wrote it, "The French colt not only leapt the stacked deck without taking notice of the obstacle but ran a race for which no frame of reference has ever been supplied by a two-year-old."

Pat Valenzuela, the veteran jockey, called it "the fastest turn of foot I've ever experienced". Shug McGaughey, the veteran trainer, went with "the greatest performance I've ever seen by a horse" - his own charge had finished fourth - and the celebrated announcer, Tom Durkin, punctuated the stretch run with, "Here indeed is a superstar!"

As sport again took its most excellent role as bridge-maker, everyone began referring to this far-off Dubai because Arazi's owners included the jet magnate Allen Paulson, but also Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, who had grown so enchanted with Arazi in Europe that he had persisted until Paulson sold him a half-interest in the colt.

From there to the next May, Arazi turned three years old and dominated the chatter sweeping into the Kentucky Derby, the most important race in the United States, even as he underwent knee surgery in November. The word "Dubai" became familiar well beyond the arcane circles of horse sales. Fascination with Sheikh Mohammed grew.

When Arazi won a preparatory race in France in April, the International Herald Tribune noted the Sheikh's arrival at the track with, "His hair was perfect. His body was perfect. His suit was absolutely perfect."

Dubai became part of the annual Kentucky Derby tapestry as 18 contestants gathered at Churchill Downs for one of the more unique - and maybe even absurd - lead-in weeks of the 136 that have transpired. From barn to track and back to barn, multitudes followed Arazi as if he held some secret for eternal youth. The commotion seemed to grate upon the trainer Francois Boutin as he sought to concentrate.

Idle talk strayed once or twice to the remarkable confluence of Sheikh Mohammed and the rapper MC Hammer among debut Derby owners, but all talk hurried back to Arazi. Would he try the US Triple Crown or the Epsom Derby?

With a jockey for Europe and a jockey for the US, the European half, Steve Cauthen, said, "Nothing will beat him in the Kentucky Derby. Everything about him is perfect. He is so intelligent and relaxed."

Well, in the thick cavalry charge of May 2, 1992, Arazi made his captivating bolt until … his gas gauge struck "E". He finished eighth. It counted as decrescendo.

Still, Dubai had entered many new consciousnesses through sport, and would remain there as Sheikh Mohammed continued trying to win the Kentucky Derby and as Dubai gained renown for other matters not involving chestnut colts.

It marks time, then, to note that almost 20 years on from Arazi's rush, 14 horses from six countries made off last night in the Dubai World Cup at a gleaming castle of racing called Meydan Racecourse. Dubai has become an entrenched entity. Everybody knows about Dubai. The proper phrase "Dubai World Cup" always turns up around a phrase such as "world's richest horse race".

From those primordial days of Arazi to the lush rush of 14 for the giant prize, you can measure Dubai's headway into final frontiers of global awareness.

Appraising history through horses might seem frivolous except that it also might be flawless. Given all they have done and endured for humanity, they probably even deserve the distinction.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae