Complex Made Simple

Eye on the prize

The richest horse race in the world, Dubai World Cup attracts some of the biggest names, both on and off the track.
By Charlie Oatway

The brainchild of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Dubai World Cup – the world’s richest horse race – was introduced to the international racing calendar in 1996. Sheikh Mohammed’s dream to have the world’s best horses racing at Nad Al Sheba racecourse was an instant success with the inaugural contest, a $4 million conditions race, won by Curlin, officially the best dirt horse in the world at the time. American challengers dominated, filling the first three places, with European superstars Pentire and Halling, as well as Australia’s Danewin, among those beaten.

The racing world’s attention was grabbed in the most spectacular fashion, with the lure of $2.4 million for the winner, just too much to resist.

The race was afforded Listed status in 1997 when won by Sheikh Mohammed’s own Singspiel. The event went on to catch local imagination and fast-established itself as the UAE’s number one social sporting event. That 1997 race will also be remembered for being “rained off” on the intended Saturday slot, despite the efforts of military helicopters to dry out the track, and being run the following Thursday.

Everyone remembers that day when Sheikh Mohammed called the Saturday race off – his finger famously going across his throat to signal the postponement.

The third running was a Group One contest with the new race elevated through the ranks at jet speed because of the quality of horses it attracted due to the $4 million prize fund, which increased to $5 million in 1999 when Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Suroor saddled Almutawakel to win in the colours of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Bin Suroor again saddled the winner of the 2000 Dubai World Cup with the remarkable Dubai Millennium destroying his field in a devastating display, which established a track record which was never to be broken. This was Sheikh Mohammed’s all-time favourite horse and it was easy to see why. The prize money was $6 million that year, a figure at which it remained during the Nad Al Sheba years when Godolphin and America continued to dominate.

The 2008 winner, Curlin, the world’s best dirt horse, was the most emphatic winner after Dubai Millennium, in what was the penultimate Nad Al Sheba Dubai World Cup. The Eoin Harty-trained Well Armed won the last ever race at the old Nad Al Sheba, the 2009 Dubai World Cup.

Just two years before, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced his latest master plan for horse racing in the United Arab Emirates, unveiling plans for the iconic Meydan City, a 40,000,000 square feet development, comprising a racecourse, a hotel, cinema, golf course, marina, commercial development, residential areas and a shopping mall.

A key part of the multi-billion dollar project was the stunning racecourse, to be built on virtually the same site as Nad Al Sheba, with the 2010 Dubai World Cup to be held on the new course and, in Sheikh Mohammed’s words, “to be worth $10 million”.

Few believed it could be done; building such a vast venue in such a short space of time, especially considering Nad Al Sheba was to host the 2009 race before the grandstands could be dismantled.

Meydan was ready. The racecourse opened its gates to the public for the first time on January 28, 2010, with the Purebred Arabian No Risk Al Maury winning the first ever race, the Group 1 Maktoum Challenge I, for HH Sheikh Hamdan. The subsequent 2010 Dubai World Cup winner Gloria De Campeao won the Group Three Thoroughbred equivalent as the world looked on in awe. If ever a sporting venue merited the label “iconic,” this was it.

Meydan was simply stunning; with a grandstand and five-star hotel stretching out over one metre, fully illuminating the racecourse, and changing UAE’s skyline forever.

The 7.5 million sqm Meydan Racecourse includes the Meydan Marina, The Meydan, the world’s first five-star trackside hotel, with 285 rooms, two race tracks and the remarkable grandstand. It has a 2,400 metre left-handed turf course, and a left-handed 1,750m Tapeta (all-weather) course on a bespoke surface, created by Michael Dickinson, to cope with the Dubai climate.

And clearly the world has taken notice. Be it royalty, football stars, pop stars, actors or other celebrities, they arrive in droves at the world’s most famous racecourse. Top golfer Lee Westwood is a regular visitor and saw Our Giant, a horse of which he owns shares, win at the 2011 Dubai International Racing Carnival, a three-month extravaganza introduced by Sheikh Mohammed in 2004 to attract world-class competition to the UAE. It was renamed the Dubai World Cup Carnival in 2012, with $11,675,000 on offer before Dubai World Cup night on Saturday, March 31. The richest night of horse racing in the world, highlighted by the world’s richest horse race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

The whole night this year was worth a staggering $27,250,000 million. And, yes, that does make a total of $39 million of Meydan prize money, so it is hardly surprising then that the Emirates Racing Authority received a staggeringly strong entry for World Cup night 2012 – when the stakes are this high, only the truly deserving can compete.

All eyes are now on the 2013 Dubai World Cup.