Dubai World Cup: tales from the track

Vision goes behind the scenes of the richest horse race in the world to meet some of the individuals without whom this remarkable event would not be possible

In a city known for its lavish sporting events, Dubai’s World Cup takes centre stage. The annual event is the richest race meeting in the world, touting a prize pot of US$27.25m across a nine-race card, and the most hotly anticipated event on the emirate’s bustling social calendar.

More than 70,000 people descend on Dubai each year for the event, which has been staged at the state-of-the-art Meydan track since 2010. The venue boasts a five-star hotel and an imposing 1.5km-long grandstand from which to view the action. On offer is an extravganza of top-class racing, hospitality and high style stakes – a heady blend that has succeeded in luring the industry’s biggest names for almost two decades.

The stars of the show are the horses, which compete with designer-clad spectators for the spotlight. The event is a parade of the world’s most valuable thoroughbred bloodstock, drawn from an array of countries and stables all over the globe. Competitors from the US, Japan and Dubai’s own Godolphin stables have been among the past winners of the US$10m title race: if proof was needed of Dubai’s place at horseracing’s top table, the famed Dubai World Cup is it.

Even for those with little interest in equine matters, the meet is a must-attend social event. Some of the region’s largest blue chips use the weekend to woo would-be corporate clients, and network with other executives.

But the competition is not just confined to the horse racing. To tempt the global glitterati, the Dubai World Cup has also expanded to include the extravagant fashion on show at the event. Prizes are awarded each year to the best-dressed racegoers through the Jaguar Style Stakes, ensuring a steady flow of finery and fascinators, all snapped by swarms of paparazzi. This year’s best-dressed lady will drive away a new Jaguar F-type convertible, on loan for a year.

Staging the biggest day in racing is no small feat, and it’s little surprise that an event on this scale requires meticulous planning. From perfecting the venue’s two racetracks – the 1,750m all-weather surface and the 2,400m turf track – to providing world-class cuisine to tens of thousands of racegoers, to accommodating dozens of equine athletes, the Dubai World Cup is the culmination of months of painstaking preparation. On the day, a hive of staff oversee all corners of the event; from the catering, to parking more than 8,000 cars, to masterminding the night’s closing concert – this year, set to feature superstar Jennifer Lopez.

Ahead of this year’s meet, Vision was granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access to some of the individuals who make the event happen.

The photographer: Andrew Watkins, work rider and official photographer for Dubai Racing Club

Andrew Watkins knows what pressure is. When the horses are unleashed from the gates at the start of the Dubai World Cup, he has less than two and a half minutes to capture the thundering pack, the fight for the lead and the crucial shot of the first horse to power past Meydan’s finishing post.

Snapping 11 frames a second, is, says Watkins – the official photographer for Dubai Racing Club – exhilarating but heart-thumpingly tense work.

“From the minute the first race starts on Dubai World Cup day, you don’t have time to breathe,” he says. “You might be shooting two horses neck-and-neck, when one suddenly comes up on the outside without you seeing. It’s so quick and if you miss it, it’s gone. Getting the best picture involves skill, but there’s also an element of luck.”

Watkins learned racing from the ground up, first as a jockey (who rode the winner for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of Britain at Ascot in 1985) and then as a work rider.

His career took him across the UK and America before he settled in Dubai in 1995. Today, he juggles sports photography with his role as a rider for Red Stables, under former UAE champion trainer Doug Watson. At 5am every morning, he can be found working the gallops, feeding back critical information on the horses’ form to the trainer.

“I’m passionate about them,” Watkins says. “I love working horses and the speed, the smell of the stables in the morning. You can really tell when they have talent.”

In the week leading up to the Dubai World Cup, his 14th, Watkins will trade his  riding gear for the camera. From dawn each day, he will be at the trackside, shooting pictures of all the horses scheduled to race over the weekend. Dubai World Cup day itself is a blurred frenzy of activity, which begins with the competitors in the paddock and finishes in a media scrum in which photographers vie for the best shot at the presentation of the Dubai World Cup trophy.

“Racegoers might only see the event on the day, but I see the journey from the stables to the track,” explains Watkins. “It’s a lot of work, but there’s a real buzz in the air. The atmosphere is fantastic, and it’s great to be a part of that.”

The commentator: Terry Spargo, race commentator, Emirates Racing Authority

When Godolphin-trained Electrocutionist, ridden by jockey Frankie Dettori,  stormed past the line to win the Dubai World Cup in 2006, it was Terry Spargo’s words that brought the victory home. Shouting to be heard above the roar from the crowd, the commentator’s famous line, “Nad Al Sheba goes berserk!” is as well remembered as the race itself.

“They tore the place down when he hit the front,” Spargo recalls. “It just erupted. I think that was the greatest sound I’ve ever heard – the sheer response.”

With 13 Dubai World Cups now under his belt, Spargo is the undisputed voice of UAE horse racing. The Queensland-born commentator can reel off the name of every victor he’s called home, and describes the annual race as “the biggest thing on my calendar”.

Preparation starts well before Dubai World Cup day. In addition to calling the race, the broadcast team handles the television feed aired to millions of viewers worldwide. Spargo juggles all this with a slew of social functions that lead up to the day itself.

“It’s a hectic week,” he admits. “The phone is ringing, operational meetings are going on, the emails are flying – ‘we need this, we need that’ – it’s a lot to fit in.”

Spargo calls every race live: a few minutes of thrilling drama that he tracks with binoculars from the glass-fronted broadcast booth set above the winner’s post. All 16 runners must be committed to memory ahead of the race: their names, jockey colours and form. Once the starting gates open, it’s show time.

“It’s minutes, but it seems like it is a lot longer,” he says. “If there’s a battle or two horses settle down for a war in the last 200 yards, it’s incredibly exciting. But what we do is a form of showbusiness: there is pressure to put on a good show for the crowd.”

For a man who, from the age of six, wanted to be a commentator, calling the wealthiest day in horse racing remains a childhood dream come true.

“Racing has always enthralled me. It has been my passion for over 40 years,” he reflects. “Now I have been lucky enough to call the world’s richest horse race. It’s amazing.”

The trainer: Musabah Al Muhairi, trainer, Oasis 1 Stables

By the time of our 9am interview, Musabah Al Muhairi has been at work for five hours, overseeing the feeding and training regimes of the 92 gleaming, thoroughbred horses in his charge. “It is an early start, yes. Jockeys start at 4am, but the grooms start earlier at 3.30am.”

Al Muhairi began training horses at the Oasis 1 Stables, part of Dubai Racing Club, more than 10 years ago. His office in Meydan is stuffed with the gold- and crystal-coloured trophies from winning steeds, a paean to a love of horses that started as a young jockey in 1979. Since then, he has earned the accolade of becoming the first local trainer and local stable to run a horse in the Dubai World Cup. “In 2009, we ran Snaafy in the Dubai World Cup race. He placed sixth, but in his form he could have finished better,” he says, pointing proudly at the photo.

Final preparations start one week before race day. The programme of trackwork, walking or swimming is tailored according to the horse’s current fitness. It’s an anxious time for Al Muhairi: “Two days before the race I know if my horse is fit enough to win or not and I get nervous,” the trainer says. “I normally watch the race from the paddock, but if it is too nerve-wracking I watch from the stand – away from everyone looking at me with expectations.”

Al Muhairi has trained several winners at prestigious events on the racing circuit, and says, “If one of my horses won the Dubai World Cup, I think I would fly – this is my dream,” he beams. “The Dubai World Cup is such a big race. I might say that I would retire if I won it, but really I wouldn’t be able to stop.”