Dubai World Cup: a global meeting-place

What started as an ambitious vision has become a truly international fixture, bringing together the most talented thoroughbreds from across the globe for the richest day of horse racing. Sam Price traces the history and heritage of the Dubai World Cup

The magnificent Meydan Racecourse, with its 1.5km-long, 60,000-capacity grandstand and state-of-the-art facilities, stands proud as a fitting stage for the most international horse racing fixture of them all. Mirroring Dubai’s growth story, the rapid ascent of Dubai World Cup to become an event of global prominence and prestige owes everything to the pioneering vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The horse is synonymous with Emirati culture, but it wasn’t until a visit in 1967 to Newmarket Racecourse, while studying in Cambridge, that Sheikh Mohammed was first exposed to and enthralled by thoroughbred racing. An idea was born, and in 1981 the emirate hosted its first Flat meeting, on a dusty camel track in Dubai. Ten years later, an impressive racecourse at Nad Al Sheba had been opened under the auspices of the newly established Dubai Racing Club, and would welcome the finest horsemen from across the globe for the Dubai International Jockeys' Challenge in 1993, which would prove the predecessor to the World Cup.

“One of my favourite memories is talking to Sheikh Mohammed in the paddock in March 1995, when he told me he was going to have the world’s richest race,” says Kiaran McLaughlin, one of the first American trainers to relocate to the emirate. “I went home and told my wife it’d probably be the year 2000 before that happens – but it was 11 months later!”

A headline horse was needed to put the seal of approval on the inaugural running of the US $4 million race, and it came in the form of the brilliant Cigar, who made the 7,000-mile trip from Bill Mott’s Kentucky stable. A show-stopping performance followed, and Dubai World Cup had arrived on the international racing calendar.

American and British trainers fared best in the early skirmishes, but in 2000 the race delivered the storybook result that catapulted its profile to new heights, as Dubai Millennium – the pride and joy of Sheikh Mohammed, who named him to win the race – won in sensational style for Emirati trainer Saeed Bin Suroor and Godolphin Stables. 

The event seemed to gain more traction with each year that followed that definitive success, as increased incentives and a preceding carnival helped to attract an all-star cast of international horses, jockeys, trainers and owners. Dubai World Cup quickly became the most important sporting and social event on the UAE’s calendar and, as more and more high-profile guests from around the world jetted in to attend the spectacle, it began to outgrow its Nad Al Sheba home. 

A new venue was needed befitting the race’s global status, and in 2010 Dubai Racing Club opened Meydan, an architectural masterpiece incomparable with any other racetrack that had come before it. Named after the Arabic word that indicates a place where people congregate and compete, it would be the world’s largest integrated racing facility and a stunning setting for high society to exchange ideas, compare the latest styles and fashions, and enjoy the competition between the world’s finest equine athletes.

The first running of the showpiece race at the new track perfectly underlined Dubai’s desire to create a truly international event, as it was won by Gloria De Campeao – a South American horse who was owned by a Swedish businessman, trained by a Frenchman and ridden by a Brazilian jockey. A year later, Japan got the World Cup victory they craved as Victoire Pisa led home a 1-2 for the Far East to provide a welcome tonic just weeks after the devastating Tsunami disaster, while in 2016 the rags-to-riches superstar California Chrome delighted his many fans with a memorable winning performance.

Now boasting a nine-race card worth US $30 million – making it the richest day of horse racing anywhere in the world – Dubai World Cup continues to attract the cream of the crop year-on-year, thanks to Meydan’s top-class dirt and turf tracks that run parallel and stage Group 1 contests such as the Dubai Turf, Dubai Sheema Classic and Dubai Golden Shaheen (now world-famous races in their own right) alongside the main event. Australian singer Sia will become the latest popstar – following Jennifer Lopez, Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson – to bring the curtain down on the extravaganza, and with the highest-rated horse ever to touch down in Dubai, Arrogate, set to line up in this year’s signature race, the fixture appears in rude health.

Indeed, with horses from 12 countries – including Hong Kong, Uruguay and South Korea – represented on this year’s card, and unrivalled equine facilities available to use for any connections that take up the challenge, the worldwide appeal of Dubai World Cup remains stronger than ever. And in the global business of horse racing, as with so many other industries, it is clear than Dubai’s position as an international meeting-place is only becoming more significant.

The 22nd running of the Dubai World Cup takes place at Meydan Racecourse on Saturday 25 March