Diary from Dubai: The Field Of Dreams

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Horses at Doug Watson’s stables being washed down under the Dubai skyline | Emma Berry

By Emma Berry

Any time I get a little fired up about racing, one of my oldest friends likes to issue the sharp retort that “it’s just a bunch of horses running round a field”.

He’s right, up to a point, but to all of us who either earn a living from the sport or follow it with a passion bordering on lunacy, it’s much, much more than that. Said friend remains horrified that I refuse to let go of my murky past as a jump racing fan and, in time-honoured tradition, last week was spent wrapped in thermals and tweed at the Cheltenham Festival with the odd excursion to the Guinness Village, which is so packed prior to racing that it has a micro-climate all of its own.

To write about racing and be able to pretend that doing so constitutes real work is one of life’s great joys. One of the sport’s main draws has always been its extraordinary variety, which is evident at this time of the year more than any other. Less than 24 hours after the last horse had crossed the line in Cheltenham’s Grand Annual, I landed in Dubai, the tweeds and thermals now just ridiculous excess baggage.

If race meetings are measured by their international pull then the 22 years of the Dubai World Cup can be deemed a tremendous success. This year, a strong home team will be challenged by runners from America, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Hong Kong, South Korea and Uruguay, not to mention two from neighbouring Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar. Last year California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) was the star attraction; 12 months on it is his nemesis, the world’s top-rated dirt horse, Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song).

Defending the honour of the home guard is the man who has just claimed the UAE champion trainer title for the fifth time, Doug Watson. In the countdown to Dubaian racing’s biggest meeting, the American ex-pat could be forgiven for being a little tetchy when a foreign journalist rocks up at his stable on a Sunday morning, especially when he’s reduced to one arm, the other being in a sling after a painful tendon injury incurred while legging-up stable jockey Sam Hitchcott. Watson, however, is welcoming, charming and laidback at his Red Stables in the shadow of some of Dubai’s tallest skyscrapers. A former resident of TDN’s home state of New Jersey, Watson has been in Dubai since 1993, originally acting as assistant to Satish Seemar before embarking on a highly successful training career in his own right.

Given the trainer’s heritage, perhaps the most appropriate winner from his runners on Saturday would be Bee Jersey (Jersey Town) in the G2 UAE Derby, who will be taken on in that race by his stablemate Cosmo Charlie (Stay Thirsty), while other contenders from the Watson barn include Etijaah (Daaher {Can}) and Second Summer (Summer Bird) in the G2 Godolphin Mile.

Rather like Noah’s selections for the Ark, the Watson runners come two by two and it is the G1 Golden Shaheen which will be his most coveted prize on Saturday. The dependable Cool Cowboy (Kodiak Kowboy), beaten just a head by Morawij (GB) (Exceed And Excel {Aus}) in the G3 Mahab Al Shimaal on Super Saturday, will no doubt post another creditable effort but it is My Catch (Ire) (Camacho {GB}) who is the more intriguing of his representatives. The 6-year-old reappeared after a 10-month absence to win Meydan’s Listed Garhoud Sprint on Dec. 15 and the form of that race reads well, as he had Morawij and fellow Super Saturday winner Heavy Metal (GB) (Exceed And Excel {Aus}) behind him that day when posting a 4 ¾-length victory. The former British-trained French Group 3 winner looked in fine order when stretching out readily under regular jockey Pat Dobbs at the training track on Sunday morning.

Watson’s biggest patron is Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, who is second only to Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda in the UAE owners’ championship by number of winners this season. For the sheikh, the Watson-trained purebred Arabian Bon Baiser du Faust (Fr) (Madjani {Fr}) is as important as any of the thoroughbreds he will have running on World Cup night. The 6-year-old is one of three horses engaged for him in a 13-strong field for the G1 Kahayla Classic––the most prestigious contest in the Arab racing programme––along with last year’s winner AF Mathmoon (AE) (AF Albahar {AE}), who notched an important milestone as the first UAE-bred horse to land the $1 million race.

It would be impossible for anyone in Dubai, whether they like racing or not, to overlook the fact that for the country’s ruler it is a major passion. Huge billboards bearing images of Sheikh Mohammed along with the slogan #TeamGodolphin pepper the roadsides and the Dubai World Cup can very much be seen as Sheikh Mohammed’s Field Of Dreams project. He built it; they came.

His brother Sheikh Hamdan’s love of both thoroughbred and Arabian racing is perhaps a little more understated but no less genuine. Next to Doug Watson’s training establishment sits Dubai Stables, a private breaking and pre-training facility which each year takes charge of around 40% of the Shadwell yearlings from Europe and America.

“They thrive here with the sun on their backs,” says John Hyde, who runs the operation and arguably has one of the most important jobs in the Shadwell empire. “For Sheikh Hamdan, it’s really important having the horses here in Dubai as it gives him a chance to see them regularly, and he doesn’t miss much––he always spots who is thriving and who needs a little bit more time.”

Having arrived in Dubai in October, the juveniles head to their assigned trainers five months later, but that’s not the end of Hyde’s interest in them. Name one of his former charges and he’ll quickly recall exactly how they fared on the track, while photographs of a number of the luminaries to have passed through his hands––Nayef, Haafhd (GB), Mujahid, Lahudood (GB), Tamayuz (GB), Ghanaati, to name but a few––bear quiet testament to the achievements of Hyde’s team.

Sheikh Hamdan’s commitment to his country’s native breed is evident in his support of the Dubai International Arabian Racing series, but it goes beyond the racecourse as he is also patron of the Dubai International Arabian Horse Championships, which took place at the weekend.

As a former deputy editor of Horse & Hound, I’ve spent my fair share of time at horse shows but I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed the level of partisan whooping and hollering from rival sections of the audience on the entrance of each new finalist to the ring. The Dubai marching band heralded the arrival ahead of the stallion class of Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan, who sat alongside one another in the royal box, their gazes fixed intently on the action before they took to the show ring to congratulate each class winner and their horse.

By showing standards, the purse of $4 million is huge, but on Saturday, when the focus switches to horses bred for speed rather than looks, the prize-money on offer at Meydan is a whopping $30 million. It may just be horses running round this particular corner of a foreign field, but there’s an awful lot at stake.

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