We take a look at five of the greatest, saddest – and fastest – moments from more than 20 years of Dubai World Cup history
From humble beginnings at Nad Al Sheba racecourse to its current Meydan home, Dubai World Cup has been a driving force behind Dubai’s growth story. This year, the world’s richest day of racing will attract the finest horses, jockeys and trainers from across the globe, with a total of US$30m up for grabs across nine races – in front of some 70,000 spectators.
1996: the inaugural year
Dubai World Cup began in 1996 at the Nad Al Sheba racecourse. The race made headlines straight out of the starting gates: the US$4m prize pot attracted America’s champion at the time, Cigar. “The atmosphere was electric,” recalls Yasir Mabrouk, Senior Clerk of the Scales at Meydan, who has been with the race from the beginning. It was a proud moment for Mabrouk, who is responsible for weighing jockeys before and after each race. “The cream of the jockeys in the world competed that night – Frankie Dettori, Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens,” says Mabrouk.
The Japanese supporters celebrated tearfully, wearing black T-shirts printed with the word “Hope” and the date of the tsunami on the back
“We learned a lot from that experience, dealing with top-class jockeys and how to read their body language. You could tell they were very nervous, but at the same time very confident. Confidence helps them make the right decisions, at the right time.” Cigar triumphed that night, making the Dubai World Cup victory his 14th win on the trot. Even then it was obvious the race would become a global sensation, says Mabrouk. But it did so at record speed: “We call it a miracle,” he says. “Nobody could imagine that happening in such a short amount of time.”
2000: Dubai Millennium – a legend is born
The story of Dubai Millennium is one of triumph and tragedy. In 2000, the thoroughbred racehorse, the favourite of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, won the Dubai World Cup. Melvin Day, official handicapper at Emirates Racing Authority, recalls that moment as one of the most memorable in his 19-year career. “I don’t get excited very often, but that day I cheered a lot,” says Day.
Day arrived in Dubai in 1994, when the International Jockeys Challenge was the main horseracing event before the World Cup. His job is to assess horses and give them a ranking, therefore predicting their chances of winning a race. He says there was a lot of buzz around Dubai Millennium, who was initially called Yaazer, before Sheikh Mohammed requested the name change. The horse had his debut race in 1998 with famed jockey Frankie Dettori and won it very easily, recalls Day. A number of wins followed, with his only defeat seen at the Derby. However, his career ended abruptly in 2000 when he sustained a leg injury during training, and he died at the age of five from grass sickness.
Sheikh Mohammed “wanted to see his dream to have the best racehorse on the planet and this was what he achieved, but sadly there was that tragic side to the story”, says Day. “He was for me the best racing horse I’ve seen in Dubai.”
2008: running away with it
This year witnessed another superstar in action, the 2007 and 2008 US Horse of the Year, Curlin, trained by Steve Asmussen. “Curlin was the first American horse to do a lead-up run in Dubai, in a handicap race one month before [the World Cup],” says Martin Talty, former International Depart ment Manager at Dubai Racing Club.
“I’ve never seen a situation where a horse emptied the jockeys’ room as he did the day of his prep run. All the jockeys went out to the parade ring to have a look. It was like when a major pop star or actor walks in.”
The US-bred racehorse took the World Cup by a wide margin, beating two horses that would subsequently win the title themselves: Well Armed (2009) and Gloria De Campeao (2010).
2010: bigger and better
The World Cup was held at its new state- of-the-art premises for the first time in 2010. The Meydan venue boasts a five-star hotel, 1.5km-long grandstand and two racetracks: one 2,400m grass track and a 1,750m dirt track.
“Nad Al Sheba wasn’t capable of hand- ling the ever-growing number of Dubai World Cup guests,” says Frank Gabriel, Executive Director of Racing, Dubai Racing Club.The stakes were high that year: 2010 saw the title race’s prize fund upped to US$10m and the contest was one of the tightest in the competition’s history.
“The first Dubai World Cup at Meydan brought our first South American winner, as Gloria De Campeao won in a three-horse photo finish,” says Gabriel. The win put the international nature of the race in the spotlight: Gloria De Campeao was owned by a Swedish businessman, trained by a Frenchman and ridden by a Brazilian jockey. “There are so many great moments associated with this race. Each year brings another unbelievable chapter. The stories seem to come from a movie script,” Gabriel adds.
2011: Bittersweet victory
It was to be a poignant year. Always strong contenders, Japanese horses had competed in the race since 1996 without a win. In 2011, three Japanese runners raced just two weeks after a tsunami devastated their homeland, having left Japan before the 11 March catastrophe. “Victoire Pisa arrived with a good reputation, but it wasn’t obvious he’d win,” says Terry Spargo, Emirates Racing Authority’s race commentator since 2000.”
It was a race full of drama. Ridden by Italian jockey Mirco Demuro, Victoire Pisa trailed the pack at the start while compatriot Transcend went to the front. “They turned into the back straight and Demuro took off from last place, whizzed around and sat outside of Transcend,” says Spargo. There was a Japanese duel on the home straight – Victoire Pisa prevailed by half a length, giving Japan a 1-2 result.
The Japanese supporters celebrated tearfully, wearing black T-shirts printed with the word “Hope” and the date of the tsunami on the back. “Calling the race, you think only about the race. It was only when they hit the line that I realised it was a big thing, more than just a result,” remembers Spargo. “A great result, given all that had occurred.”
This article was updated in March 2017