Nicholas Godfrey on the Dubai World Cup Carnival

Nicholas Godfrey, a leading writer on international racing, throws the three-month jamboree at magnificent Meydan under the spotlight.

Roll up, roll up for the greatest racing show on earth! The Dubai World Cup Carnival is upon us once more – and connections from all four corners of the globe have needed no second invitation to the 16th edition of a three-month jamboree at magnificent Meydan featuring ten lavishly endowed racecards before the world’s richest raceday at the end of March.

Lest it be forgotten, the $12 million Dubai World Cup is now restored to its position as the most valuable race on the planet ahead of the Pegasus later this month. Before then, however, nearly $12.7m is on offer across 65 races (61 thoroughbred; four for purebred Arabians) at this year’s carnival, which runs for nine consecutive Thursdays before the ‘Super Saturday’ card on March 9. No race will be worth less than $135,000 – and that just for the lower-grade handicaps for horses rated 90 and above.

Nowhere will you find a more cosmopolitan cast of racing celebrities: the international acceptors’ list runs to more than 200, with horses from 71 individual overseas trainers based in 17 different nations, from South Korea to South Africa and South America, from Australia to Argentina, via Denmark, Sweden and Spain.

And we’re not talking about minor players either: famous names due to saddle runners at Meydan in the next few weeks are Andre Fabre, Dermot Weld, Mike de Kock, David Hayes and Winx’s trainer Chris Waller, who has no fewer than 17 horses in line for Dubai including Group 1 winners Comin’ Through, Shillelagh and Good Project.

Then, of course, there is the usual sizeable contingent from the UK including a host of familiar names such as Balding, Botti, Crisford, Dunlop, Hannon, Hills, Johnston, O’Meara, Osborne, Palmer and Simcock. Plus assorted others.

Needless to say, though, any visitors will face a stiff task in attempting to challenge the supremacy of a domestic contingent headed by formidable Dubai-based American Doug Watson and Godolphin pair Saeed Bin Suroor and Charlie Appleby, always so prolific on their home patch. Thunder Snow, who ran four times during the carnival in 2017, will again spearhead the Bin Suroor team as he bids to become the first horse to complete back-to-back World Cup successes.

When Meydan’s vast bank of floodlights are switched on in front of the 1.3km-long grandstand for near $1m card, anyone who witnessed the humble beginnings of racing in Dubai might well marvel at how far they’ve come.

The Maktoum family’s colours were first carried to success on a racecourse in Britain by the John Dunlop-trained Hatta at Brighton in 1977, when their little-known home state Dubai was largely uncharted territory, a desert outpost somewhere on the eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula to the southeast of the Persian Gulf.

How times change. Four decades later, Dubai stands utterly transformed into a bustling metropolis, a centre for tourism and finance after a headlong petrodollar-backed rush to modernity. In no other arena has this been more evident than horse racing, the development of which has been a microcosm of Dubai as a whole as the Maktoums, with the dynamic young Sheikh Mohammed front and centre, sought to showcase the emirate to the wider world.

Horse racing began in Dubai in October 1981, when three thoroughbred races were held on the dusty camel track. The Dubai Racing Club, though, did not come into existence until 1992, when Meydan’s predecessor Nad Al Sheba was opened in November when the highlight was the appearance of Lester Piggott and Willie Carson. Godolphin’s first winner, Cutwater, came in a Nad Al Sheba maiden the following month; Sheikh Mohammed’s team reached the 5,000-mark in August this year when Expecting To Fly triumphed at La Teste de Buch in the French provinces.

With limitations on the free movement of horses to Dubai in Nad Al Sheba’s earliest days, international jockeys’ challenges provided the main attraction with the likes of Frankie Dettori, Pat Day and Chris McCarron among those to participate.

Such events paved the way for the creation of the Dubai World Cup, at a stroke the most valuable race in the world. Diehard traditionalists may have baulked at the at the alleged arriviste vulgarity of the new race but any such cynicism was made to look silly almost immediately with the inaugural running in when the great Cigar and Jerry Bailey outfought US compatriot Soul Of The Matter in a race for the ages that put Dubai indelibly on the racing map. The Dubai World Cup was soon to become an integral part of the global calendar with a litany of greats from around the world on its roll of honour and the centrepiece of a star-studded raceday that now carries prize-money of $35m on offer across a series of Group 1 events on dirt and turf.

The first Dubai Carnival came into being in 2004, taking the concept of international racing to a new level as 53 trainers from 17 countries sent 105 overseas runners to compete in the Gulf. Go back a few decades and the concept of a major racing festival being held approximately 3,000 miles from any other major equine centre in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere winter would have seemed laughable, but Sheikh Mohammed’s vision has dramatically changed the face of the racing world. Certainly, the Dubai World Cup Carnival has changed the parameters of the global racing calendar.

What is more, if the action is guaranteed to come from the top shelf, then it has the setting to match. While it is a cliche to suggest Sheikh Mohammed likes to think bigger and better, there is no other explanation for the construction of Meydan, the Dubai Carnival’s spectacularly grandiose home. Completed in 2010 at an estimated cost of $2bn, the world’s largest racing facility is a thing of wonder, probably unmatched anywhere else.

The action begins on Thursday with a six-race card offering $995,000 in purses and a pair of Group 3 events, namely the Dubawi and Singspiel Stakes Stakes, won 12 months ago by Godolphin’s Benbatl, who went on to win the Dubai Turf on World Cup night. Among those involved are Ireland’s Royal Hunt Cup hero Settle For Bay and former Aidan O’Brien-trained Deauville, a Grade 1-winning globetrotter now saddled by Bahrain’s Dubai regular Fawzi Nass.

Bigger names are waiting in the wings. Enjoy the ride.


AROUND THE WORLD: SIX STARS SET FOR DUBAI

BRAVE SMASH (Darren Weir, Australia)

Japanese-bred sprinter his second Group 1 success at Melbourne’s Spring Carnival when he claimed the Manikato Stakes over six furlongs at Moonee Valley. Stablemate Land Of Plenty, who held Godolphin’s Hartnell to win the Group 1 Toorak at Caulfield in October, is also set for Dubai as part of a large Australian consignment featuring big teams from Chris Waller and David Hayes.

Race replay: Brave Smash wins the Manikato Stakes.

GRECKO (Kenny McPeek, USA)

Although American trainers can be relied upon to play a role on World Cup night, only rarely have they become involved in the carnival’s earlier skirmishes. US pioneer Kenny McPeek, though, has a small team of three headed for Dubai, headed by Grade 3 winner Senior Investment and former Argentine-trained star Grecko, who looks a likely type for the UAE Derby after his victory in the Grade 1 Estrellas Juvenile in June. “He’s a southern hemisphere 3-year-old and we bought him privately out of the Estrellas,” McPeek explains.

“He has been with us for a few months now and I think that’s important. The difficulty of going to Dubai is high, but a horse who’s had time to acclimate better to our training has a better chance of doing well once we go there – and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Race replay: Grecko wins the Estrellas Juvenile.

GRONKOWSKI (Sandeep Jadhav, UAE)

Started life with Jeremy Noseda before being transferred to Chad Brown and chasing home Justify as he completed the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes for Phoenix Thoroughbreds. “We want our best horses at the Carnival and that’s what a lot of our trainers have been instructed to do,” explains Phoenix principal Amer Abdulaziz.

Both Gronkowski and US compatriot Axelrod will join the string of Dubai-based Sandeep Jadhav, who has taken over from the suspended Salem Bin Ghadayer for the 2018-19 UAE season. “We will point to the Maktoum Challenge races with them and hopefully trial them toward the Dubai World Cup,” says Abdulaziz.

Phoenix have also bought into British Champions Sprint winner Sands Of Mali with an eye on the Al Quoz Sprint.

Race replay: Gronkowski finishes second in the Belmont Stakes.

IMAGEN DE ROMA (Sebastian Morgan, Argentina)

Winner of the Gran Premio Jockey Club, this Argentine Classic winner tops the South American possibles. Aero Trem, who won a leg of the Uruguayan Triple Crown, is also on his way.

Race replay: Imagen De Roma wins the GP Jockey Club at San Isidro.

MARINARESCO (Mike de Kock, South Africa)

De Kock’s typically powerful squad includes multiple Group 1 winner Marinaresco, who won the Durban July in 2017 for former trainer Candice Bass-Robinson. Fellow Grade 1 winner Yulong Prince, who was called Surcharge when finishing runner-up in all three legs of the South African Triple Crown, plus Majestic Mambo and last year’s Zabeel Mile winner Janoobi, who the trainer expects to step up again.

Race replay: Marinaresco lands the Durban July in 2017.

WALDGEIST (Andre Fabre, France)

Andre Fabre’s quartet is headed by this dual Group 1 winner, back on his travels again after finishing fifth in both the Breeders’ Cup Turf and Hong Kong Vase, where he endured a luckless passage before flying home. One of the highest-rated horses at the carnival, the highlight of his four Group victories last year came in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

Race replay: Waldgeist is unlucky in the Hong Kong Vase.

*Nicholas Godfrey is on Stateside on Sky Sports Racing on Thursday 3rd January, where the channel will be showing live US racing from Gulfstream Park.


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