Bets and bubbly aside, it's big-money racing

Two western women among Emirati men at Dubai races.
Two western women among Emirati men at Dubai races. Photo: Getty Images.

In the sport of kings, Dubai is a long way from Flemington and Royal Randwick, writes Rob McFarland.

I feel like I'm watching the opening scene from a movie. Projected across one of the world's longest video screens - a 108-metre monster that looms over the track at Meydan Racecourse - is the image of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. He's strolling nonchalantly towards the winners' enclosure, surrounded by friends and family, all immaculately dressed in traditional Arabian kanduras.

This is no public relations stunt. The sheikh is a horse-racing fanatic who regularly makes an appearance at Meydan to watch one of his vast stable of thoroughbreds. His Godolphin stable, which he started with his brothers in 1992, is one of the largest in the world and has generated more than 200 Group One (elite-grade) winners.

Horses parading at Meydan Racecourse, Dubai.
Horses parading at Meydan Racecourse, Dubai. Photo: Photo: Rob McFarland.

Godolphin is named after the Godolphin Arabian - one of three horses brought from the Arabian Peninsula to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries to be bred for racing. The other two are the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk, and all modern-day thoroughbreds can trace their pedigrees to one of these three horses.

For the next hour or so, the sheikh roams around the winners' enclosure, watching each race intently, checking his phone and chatting with trainers. He greets each of Godolphin's jockeys as they arrive, including the ebullient Frankie Dettori, who performs his trademark star jump dismount to the delight of the crowd.

While seeing the sheikh is an unexpected highlight, there are many other reasons to include a visit to Meydan on your Dubai itinerary. For a start, general admission is free. And although gambling is not allowed, you can still win cash prizes by predicting winners on the free Pick 6 game card. Above all, there's the sheer spectacle of the place. From the outside, Meydan looks more like a futuristic concert venue than a racecourse.

At 1.6 kilometres long, its grandstand is the largest in world horse racing with 15,000 tiered seats and a capacity of 60,000. It looks particularly impressive at night, when its striking solar and titanium roof is bathed in a plume of red and purple lights. In addition to two racing tracks - a 1750-metre all-weather course and a 2400-metre turf one - the complex contains the world's first trackside five-star hotel, where 95 per cent of the rooms have a view of the action.

There's also an elevated private access road that leads to the royal enclosure and is for the exclusive use of the sheikh and his guests.

All this glitz and glamour is trademark Dubai, but what is refreshing is that the venue draws people from all walks of life. While the corporate boxes and fine-dining restaurants are filled with wealthy Emiratis and expats, trackside you'll find construction workers from the enormous immigrant workforce that has been instrumental in Dubai's startling transformation over the past 15 years.

What you won't find is the alcohol-fuelled exuberance of the Randwick spring carnival. Because the complex contains a hotel, all the bars and restaurants serve alcohol, but people come to Meydan for the excitement of watching the races - not to get legless.

Dubai's racing season begins in November but things don't really hot up until the Dubai World Cup Carnival, an 11-week extravaganza that starts in January and culminates with the world's richest race, the Dubai World Cup. The prizemoney for this one race, held on the last Saturday in March, is a cool $US10 million.

Godolphin has won six times, most recently in 2012 with Monterosso, but this year it was won by an American horse, Animal Kingdom. The Kentucky Derby winner held off a blistering late challenge from Melbourne Cup runner-up Red Cadeaux to win by two lengths.

Although the horse is American-bred and trained, he was until recently 75 per cent owned by John Messara, of Arrowfield Stud in NSW. As Messara was presented with the trophy by Sheikh Mohammed, Advance Australia Fair played in the background. The sheikh must have been suitably impressed because, four days later, he bought a 29 per cent stake in the stallion.

The horse everyone would love to have seen in Dubai is Black Caviar. She was due to appear in 2012, but her owners withdrew her a month before her scheduled arrival to rest her before she headed to Royal Ascot. The undefeated mare was retired in April to start her breeding career so there's still hope that one of her offspring may one day be bought by Godolphin and race at Meydan. Now that would make a great movie.

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Dubai Tourism.


Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates flies three times a day from Sydney to Dubai with return economy airfares from $1900. 1300 303 777, emirates.com/au.

Visiting there

General admission is free and includes grandstand seating and trackside access. Admission for the Dubai World Cup meet is 25 dirham ($6.60). Premium packages including VIP seating, food and drink are also available. dubairacingclub.com.

Staying there

During the racing season, rates at the 284-room five-star Meydan Hotel start from $US250 ($243) a night. meydanhotels.com/meydan.

More information

meydan.ae; definitelydubai.com.

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