Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Dubai World Cup
By Stephen Dwyer

January is over, the warmest in years, but the traditional February cold snap has begun. Frost covers have been deployed for days on end and meetings are being cancelled up and down the country. At times like this it is hard not to think of sunnier climates and few compare to the United Arab Emirates.
 About 6,000 kilometres away the city of Dubai sits south of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. It was inhabited a millennium ago and was once an ancient mangrove swamp. Directly positioned within the Arabian desert the temperature is blisteringly hot and arid all year round. Yet within this empire of sand lies perhaps the most modern horse race course in the world, Meydan.
 Meydan racecourse officially opened early in March 2010. It is the most expensive track in history and took over 34 months to build. The original construction firm were dismissed when the work fell behind plan. The final cost? About $1.25 Billion. Twenty times the price of redeveloping Croke Park in Dublin and far more expensive than the new Wembley stadium. It also replaced Nad Al Sheba Racecourse which formerly occupied the same site.
 That amount of money built not one but a collection of world-class facilities. Apart from a mile-long grandstand, the racecourse can hold 60,000 spectators. Meydan Racecourse includes Meydan Marina, a 5 star hotel (the world’s first 5-star trackside hotel) an IMAX cinema and of course a 2,400 metre left-handed turf race track and a left-handed 8.75-furlong (1,750 metres) Tapeta synthetic dirt course. The scale is immense, spread out over 7.5 million square metres of what was once coral-white sand.
 Meydan opens for about five months of the year. 21 race meetings are held from November to March and these feature the Winter Racing Challenge, Dubai International Racing Carnival and the Dubai World Cup Night.
 The highlight of the year at Meydan is the Dubai World Cup at the end of March. With prize money nearing $30 million, the Dubai World Cup is the single richest day of Thoroughbred racing in the world. The last race of the night is the Dubai World Cup, which carries an arresting prize fund of $10 million. Locals are admitted free of charge and the spectacle is crowned with a colossal fireworks display by the Grucci brothers of New York (those of The Bellagio Hotel fame).
 But on a business scale what sets Meydan apart from other racecourses like Aintree, Epsom and Cheltenham is the vision of its creators. The chief architect noted “The vision was always that Meydan would be used 365 days a year, which is why there is so much adding that can be used outside racing times”.
 One of the challenges Meydan faces is its location. Flights to Dubai are expensive, a round trip would cost a couple of grand, all but the most dedicated or luckiest racing fans will see Meydan but it is a sight to behold. The grandstand itself is crowned by a dramatic, cantilevered crescent roof that features curved solar and titanium panels. In spite of the grandeur however, the horses take centre stage.
 The founder of Meydan is one of the greatest benefactors of horse racing. As a boy he would share his breakfast with his horse on his way to school. Today, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is  UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. His love for the sport and the horse is legendary and his stud farms around the world are afforded every resource.
 The 2012 Dubai World Cup takes place on March 31st. Excitingly, the world’s highest-ranked mare, the undefeated Black Caviar may make the 33 hour trip for the $2 million Golden Shaheen race.
 The Dubai World Cup also features considerable Irish interest. Last year’s Tattersall’s Gold Cup and Irish Champion Stakes winner, So You Think is currently the 7/2 favourite for the race. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, who saddled Cape Blanco to be fourth in last year’s World Cup, So You Think was last seen finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, having won three Group One races since being transferred to the Ballydoyle operation from Australia for his 2011 campaign.
 The Dubai World cup is a unique race not alone for its prestige, glamour and prize money but for the diversity of the field it attracts. Last year there was an emotional win in the wake of the Japanese disaster and tsunami as the two Japanese runners finished first and second. It is the uniqueness of the race which draws a huge audience year on year.

Black Caviar may be the star attraction but if So You Think can win the Dubai World Cup, Irish eyes will be smiling like emeralds in the Arabian desert.

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