How Sheikh Mohammed turned a camel rider into a horse jockey

Feature M meets Ahmed Ajtebi, the UAE's only home-grown jockey.

Ajtebi in the Paddock at Newmarket, the home of horse racing.

Ahmed Ajtebi is a former camel racing jockey. Born in the UAE he now races horses for the Godolphin stable.

Ahmed Ajtebi was racing camels until he sat down to lunch with the Ruler of Dubai. Now he is a familiar face in paddocks across the horse-racing world, with his sights set on an Epsom Derby win. Jonny Beardsall meets the UAE's only home-grown jockey. From the sanctuary of the jockeys' room at Newmarket racecourse, a diminutive rider from Dubai flashes his beaming smile on a warm July evening in eastern England. "I'm Ahmed Ajtebi. I'll shower and be with you in a minute," he says in good, cheerful English, before skedaddling back into the thatched-roofed building to change from royal blue silks to a smart grey suit. Not that this most likeable 29-year-old, a one-time camel jockey, could be mistaken for anyone else. With deep olive skin, sunken chestnut eyes and short dark hair, he is more supremely skinny than short. His narrow face and chiselled cheekbones imply that he counts the calories, although, at a shade more than 51 kilos, he is sylphlike and so has no need to suffer the extreme deprivation that many jockeys put themselves through.

Another win three days earlier, riding for one of the two super-power Godolphin stables of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, had taken Ajtebi's career tally to 96, a magic number that sees him turn from apprentice to senior jockey. Given that the sheikh's other yard retains the celebrated Frankie Dettori - who has ridden more than 3,000 winners - you can imagine Ajtebi has to pinch himself everyday to check he isn't dreaming.

Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager, says he doesn't need to. "Ahmed has done really well. It's great having him working for our stable and he's a very popular member of the team. He is an extremely nice man." Two years ago Ajtebi's perfect white teeth first grinned from the sports pages when he became the only Emirati jockey to ride a winner at Royal Ascot. A year later he pulled off the double of his life for Godolphin at the World Cup in Nad al Sheba when he took the Dubai Duty Free race with an inspired piece of front-running on the locally trained Gladiatorus. The same day he snatched victory on the line on Eastern Anthem in a thrilling three-way finish in the Dubai Sheema Classic.

"It was amazing. I was an apprentice and in the space of half an hour I'd ridden two Group 1 winners and won £4 million (Dh22 million) in prize money. Best of all, my dad was there to see me," he says. It got better. In November, he won at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in Santa Anita, California, entering the winner's enclosure on Vale of York with the UAE flag draped across his back. This afternoon in Newmarket is bread-and-butter stuff. He has come fifth in a lowly race for two-year-old fillies worth £4,000 (Dh22,000) to the winner. In the unsaddling enclosure he exchanges a few thoughts with trainer Mahmood al Zarooni, also from Dubai, and then sets off across the manicured lawns to weigh-in, his tiny saddle over his forearm, his working day almost done.

As the UAE's only home-grown jockey, Ajtebi is still pretty unfathomable to British racing. Some will say that purely royal connections - he is the nephew of one of Sheikh Mohammed's long-standing friends, Saeed Manana - provide his golden opportunities. It is likely that some are envious but none can say that he isn't making the most of his advantages. He comes with implacable self-belief and, so far, it hasn't deserted him in or out of the saddle.

"People look at me and say this is the guy from Dubai. I feel that when I ride I do so for my country," he says, glancing at his showy Chopard wristwatch with the lapis lazuli face, which is thicker than his wrist. "I can't stop now. I love it and always try my best for those supporting me." But unlike most of his weighing room colleagues who could ride before they could walk, Ajtebi didn't sit on a horse until he was 22. Not that he lacked racecourse experience: as a precocious six-year-old, he was race-riding camels at home, only putting away his whip at 14 when his weight rose above 25kg. By then, he had amassed more than 200 winners from 3,000 rides, mostly for his father, who died last year.

"Dad owned and trained 50 animals a 25-minute drive from the centre of Dubai city," says Ajtebi. Seven years ago, when still very much involved with training his father's camels, he fell into conversation over lunch with Sheikh Mohammed. "He said the UAE had horses in training everywhere in the world, but Dubai had no jockey and would I like the chance to become one. I told him that I had never ridden a horse in my life, but he pushed me."

In 2003, he and two other Dubai-born apprentices were sent to Ireland to gain experience. Ajtebi was seconded to trainer John Oxx's stable for four months. "I couldn't speak any English - I picked it up because I had to," he says. Back in Dubai, he had his first ride at Nad Al Sheba and became apprenticed to the Dubai trainer Ali al Raihe. His first win came a year later on Al Tharb at Geelong, Australia, where he incurred a Dh600 fine for his over-exuberant celebrations.

After two summers in South Africa he arrived in England in 2007. Clive Brittain, the much-revered Newmarket trainer, became his mentor. "Ahmed came to me as an ordinary apprentice. I find him very genuine. I was very impressed with his work and his dedication. I gave him 17 rides and he rode six winners and he rides one for me tomorrow," he says. Since then Ajtebi has remained on a merry-go-round, which takes him from the UAE, where he rides in winter, to Britain, where he rides all summer, with short missions to Europe, the US, Australia and South Africa.

"Britain is the place to improve in racing because it has so many different racecourses," he says. "Last year I rode a double at the new course, Ffos Las, in Wales, on the day it opened, which made me feel really good." Ajtebi has come a long way from racing camels, a ride with scant similarities to a racehorse. "They both have four legs and run very fast," he says, laughing out loud, which he does often. "The saddles are different, you have no irons, you have one rein and a long camel stick, which you use to try and keep it straight." Still smiling he hops into his smart Mercedes, for the short drive to his home.

Ajtebi lives alone in Duchess Park, a 26-acre new development in a splurge of tree-lined green space to the south side of Newmarket's High Street. For a while he has felt like a desert nomad. Although someone has now moved in next door, most of the recently built houses remain unoccupied. His is a smart yet unremarkable five-bedroom home with a garden in which only a satellite dish has been planted; it badly needs someone to make an oasis, to create the smells an Arab must miss, to grow fruit and roses on the empty lawn.

"Welcome, do come in," he says, unlocking the white door and stepping inside. He is polite, helpful and courteous; he pours coffee for me and tea without milk for himself with one spoon of sugar. He opens a box of dark chocolates from Harrods and switches off the World Cup that was playing to itself on the large screen television in the sitting room. He has a young family in Dubai. "My wife, Tahani, stays in Dubai where the children are at school. I have three girls - Mezna, eight, Dhabya, three, and Bakhita, two - and one boy, Mohammed, who is seven, with another child on the way," he says. "I hope they'll be coming over soon. I ring home all the time. I sometimes call my mum twice a day, before and after a race."

His rooms are starkly unrevealing; furnished in the bland style of a show home, the neutral-hued walls and carpets, leather sofas, chairs and coffee table and the shiny kitchen and the beds came with the house. But for framed photographs of Sheikh Mohammed and another of one of the ruler's sons riding in endurance races and a small snapshot above the fireplace of himself - with a beard - riding in the US, all other meaningless pictures were here when he moved in.

"I don't have time for furniture shopping," he says, which is true. Like most professional Flat jockeys he doesn't have a moment in summer for anything other than racing. "In Britain you are always travelling. Tomorrow I will ride in Newmarket before riding at Doncaster and Newcastle, so I won't be back till late. The next day, I'll get up at 5am, drive to Stansted airport, then fly to ride in the Irish Derby. Again I won't be home before midnight."

So how does he find his way about? "Sometimes I have a driver, but often I drive myself. It's easy with satellite navigation? I find the postcode for the course, then away I go. I don't need a map." The Racing Post - the British horse racing daily newspaper - is the extent of his reading material. He doesn't possess many books, and racing is all he watches on TV, usually his own rides, which he pre-records for post mortems. The weekend we meet, Glastonbury Festival, Wimbledon Tennis Championships and the World Cup are all being staged but he has no interest in any of them, he says.

On a low coffee table lies a recently opened packet of dates. "They give me energy. I'm the only one in the weighing room eating dates. No one else really likes them, so I can safely leave them lying around." On a worktop, the drifting fragrance from a ceramic jar of aromatic oil fills the rooms, reminding him of the souks and marbled halls back home. He has a cleaner, so the place is immaculate. There isn't much in his giant stainless-steel fridge: lettuce, tomatoes, a few eggs, nothing too enticing. "I can cook but, actually, I'm not a big eater. I go to the supermarket in town and live a European life. I'm used to it. My weight is good. But I don't go drinking or clubbing, I'm not that sort of person."

Unselfconsciously, he underlines his special relationship with the Ruler of Dubai. He is seeing him later that evening at the Shiekh's mansion on the edge of town. "Like my car, this house was a gift from him [Sheikh Mohammed]. He feels like he's my dad. When my father passed away last year, he became closer to me. He treats me as if I am his son. "He has pushed me so hard? with his money, his horses and his experience."

So how on earth does Ajtebi cope with the weight of so much expectation? He pauses. "He never puts me under pressure. He has taught me to say what I think. If I disagree about the distance a horse needs or how to ride it, he wants me to say so, and we speak on the phone before and after every race." Ajtebi is determined to win the Epsom Derby one day. He had his first ride in the race this year on Buzzword after flying in from Newmarket with his boss in his helicopter. He came eighth. "For me it is the greatest race in the world and I loved riding in front of the Queen of England. One day I hope I'll succeed," he says.

As one of only a handful of jockeys riding for stables that always run horses in the Derby, it is not implausible that one day this extraordinarily lucky man just might just pull it off.

Sign up to:

* Please select one