Neigh bother: how the Dubai World Cup horses are flown to the Emiratess

We go behind the scenes of the Dubai World Cup to find out how its equine stars get to the world’s richest horse race.

Dubai World Cup horses arriving in the UAE by air. Courtesy Emirates
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On Saturday night, for a fraction more than two minutes, all eyes will be on the 13 runners taking part in the 21st edition of the world's richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup. But for those involved behind the scenes, the logistics of bringing in these equine athletes requires long-term planning.

According to Dubai Racing Club (DRC), 69 horses have been flown in for this weekend’s meeting, with 105 horses confirmed to line up for the nine-strong racecard. The field of 13 Dubai World Cup runners includes local talent as well as thoroughbreds from France, Britain, Hong Kong, Japan, South Africa and the United States.

The Emirates’ reputation as a hub for equestrian events, which also includes polo and endurance racing, has given rise to opportunities for its national carriers with both Emirates and Etihad offering equine cargo services.

Emirates SkyCargo has been transporting horses since 2002, with air stables available on its fleet of Boeing 777s and 747s, and is also seeing increasing demand for shipments to international showjumping events in places such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Miami.

“We recently completed the longest-ever commercial non-stop flight with a horse on board,” says Hiran Perera, the senior vice president, cargo planning and freighters, for Emirates SkyCargo. “It was from Australia to the US on one of our 777s, which are widely used because the oxygen circulation and range are excellent, and took 17 hours and 25 minutes.”

The process of getting a horse from stable to airport is becoming a slick process, according to Perera, with many European airports as well as Emirates’ Dubai World Central operation, providing dedicated horse handling areas and airside ramps.

“The extremely high-end horses usually travel with a professional groom, who is someone they are comfortable with and who can take care of them on board, as well as a veterinarian,” says Wilfred D’Souza, the cargo scheduling and planning manager for Emirates SkyCargo.

Once a horse checks in, it has to go through all the normal security clearances, but unlike its biped counterpart, it gets exercised before boarding the air stable to reduce the chance of in-flight skittishness.

“These horses are frequent flyers and used to the experience. In 15 years, I can only recall one instance where we had a restless horse at the boarding stage, that we had to offload; and it wasn’t even a thoroughbred,” says ­Perera.

While the in-flight experience isn’t exactly on par with the A380 upper deck, and it’s a case of bring your own hay and water, there are different classes of travel, as Perera explains: “An air stable can come in triple or quad format, so having four horses to one stall would be the equivalent of a charter flight.

“Typically, it’s three to a stall, which is like economy; but thoroughbreds normally have an air stable to themselves, at the customer’s behest, so that’s a first-class experience.”

“Take-off and landing are when animals are most vulnerable, because of cabin pressurisation and depressurisation, so thoroughbreds are normally flown on direct charter flights because this minimises the number of stops en route,” adds D’Souza.

After landing, the horses also enjoy fast-track privileges, and are quickly deplaned and cleared before heading to the DRC facilities, where international runners are stabled, in a fully-quarantined environment, in barns according to their country of origin.

“Depending on where they come from, the quarantine regulations are different. For example, if they are from South Africa, then you can’t bring them here directly – they have to be quarantined somewhere like Mauritius for several days, before being sent to Europe for 30 days quarantine, and then on to the UAE,” says D’Souza.

Horses may be required to remain in quarantine on arrival for up to 48 hours, but the hospitality is five-star, DRC’s ­executive director of racing, Frank ­Gabriel Jr, says: “The facilities are of a standard with any of the top racing jurisdictions in the world, and usually when the horses arrive, they spend some time in the quarantine facility to rest after the flight, and then come out onto the track for morning work.”

There’s no hard and fast rule regarding the optimum time required to get a racehorse ready for Dubai World Cup day, and it’s all down to the horse-trainer routine and ­relationship whether they are given time to recover from jet lag.

“Some trainers like to arrive early to give their horses a prep run, while others like to run them off the plane,” says ­Gabriel Jr. “It really depends on the trainer’s style of conditioning the horse and on how the horse responds to travel.

“This year, California Chrome, one of the favourites for the ­Dubai World Cup, came during the Dubai World Cup Carnival, and had a prep run, yet we’ve also seen the high-profile Irish trainer Aiden O’Brien have success in Dubai World Cup day when running his horses just four days after arriving.

“International horse transport has never been easier or more accessible, and quarantine and stabling in jurisdictions such as Dubai mean that trainers and owners are more open-minded than ever about shipping their horses to compete on racing’s biggest stages,” he says.

Managing the expectations and experience of 60,000 excitable racegoers on Dubai World Cup weekend is a feat in itself, but it’s a walk in the park compared to getting one highly-strung thoroughbred to the starting gate at 9pm on Saturday, March 26.

Event details

When: Saturday, March 26. Gates open at noon, with first race at 3.45pm, and the Dubai World Cup at 9pm.

Where: Meydan Racecource, Dubai.

Getting there: The racecourse is well signposted from Sheikh Zayed Road and the E311. Taxis are available outside Gate B, along with a post-event shuttle-bus service to various Dubai destinations. Car-park pass included with hospitality packages; public car park available on Al Meydan Road.

Dress code: On-trend but elegant for women. Add a hat or fascinator for the ultimate race-day look. Avoid plunging necklines, thigh-skimming hemlines and midriff-baring cuts. Men can either suit up or go for the casual-stylish look with smart khakis and button-down shirt.


Choose Apron Views to be at the heart of the action, Dh450, entrance only; enjoy a relaxed lounge atmosphere and access to Apron Views at the Sky Bubble, Dh1,400, including food and selected beverages; opt for The Gallery to overlook the finishing post and winners circle, Dh1,500, including food and selected beverages; upgrade for the best views of the final bend at the First Class Lounge, Dh3,750, including afternoon tea and gourmet buffet, plus selected house beverages. Tickets from

Fun facts

• The 60,000-seat Meydan Grandstand and Racecourse was built at a cost of US$1.25 billion for the 2010 Dubai World Cup.

• Spanning 1.5 kilometres, the grandstand’s crescent-shaped roof is clad with solar panels that provide about 20 per cent of the energy required to power the facility.

• No horse has ever won the Dubai World Cup twice, but legendary American jockey Jerry Bailey has the most wins, with four (1996, 1997, 2001, 2002).

• In 1997, for the first time in its history, the race was abandoned at the last minute because of torrential rain, despite UAE Air Force helicopters being called in to hover over the track in an attempt to dry it out. It was subsequently rescheduled five days later.

• Traditionally a dirt-track race, in 2010 the Dubai World Cup was run on a new synthetic surface. This was changed back to a dirt surface for the 2015 edition.

• The prize purse for the world’s richest horse race in 1996 was $4 million; this jumped to $10m with the opening of the Meydan Racecourse in 2010.

• This year, the winners of the Best Dressed Man and Best Dressed Lady at the Jaguar Style Stakes will win the use of a his and hers Jaguar F-Type Coupé sports car for six months.