As the UAE celebrates its Golden Jubilee, horse racing has reached global fame owing to the country’s expertise in racing operations as owners and breeders.
Meydan Racecourse - Dubai's flagship venue - is world renowned as a venue that hosts the world’s richest race meeting – the Dubai World Cup – a nine-race card that draws equine luminaries from around the world. The prize fund for the 2022 Dubai World Cup meeting organiszed by Dubai Racing Club is a staggering $30.5 million.
Established in 1992, Godolphin now spans four continents with operations in Dubai, Europe, Australia, Japan and the United States.
They celebrate winners almost every day. At the time of writing, they have saddled 7,164 winners, including 360 Group or Grade 1 prizes.
The name Godolphin is derived from Godolphin Barb and their breeding operation is named the Darley Stud, two of the founding Arabian sires of the modern thoroughbred Godolphin Barb (born in 1724) and Darley Arabian (1703). Bayerly Turk (1684) is the other.
During his studies in Cambridge, Sheikh Mohammed attended his first race meeting at Newmarket to watch Royal Palace win the 2000 Guineas in May 1967.
Fast forward 10 years and his own involvement with international racing began with the filly Hatta, who gave him his first success at Brighton, on June 20, 1977, and then went on to win the Group 3 Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood the following month.
Sheikh Mohammed’s passion for horses grew into a major bloodstock operation and has resulted in the world’s largest and successful racing team, Godolphin, as well as the successful stallion operation, Darley.
Today, Godolphin horses winter in Dubai and are prepared for the Dubai World Cup Carnival as well as the Dubai World Cup itself.
While Sheikh Mohammed’s racing operation is world renown, the Dubai Ruler himself rode and promoted the Arabian horse for endurance riding – long distance races ranging from 100-180km.
He has won several events, including gold at the World Endurance Championship.
The Purebred Arabians take a prominent place in the culture and heritage of the country and Arabian racing is promoted worldwide, an initiative of the UAE's founding father, Sheikh Zayed.
The President of the UAE Cup is currently in its 28th edition. It is a race series held across Europe, the US and the Middle East to encourage the breeding of the species.
“Most affluent homes in the UAE had horses and camels, and they raced them in makeshift or open desert areas during festivities and special functions like weddings,” Khalid Khalifa Al Naboodah, an owner/breeder of the Purebred Arabians and a four-time UAE champion owner, said.
“We had Arabian horses at home and that’s how I came to love them and later started a breeding operation for races,” Al Naboodah, who has more than 100 Arabians currently in training, added.
Emirati trainers Ali Rashid Al Raihe and Musabah Al Muhairi raced Arabians in the open desert during their childhood.
“Long before horse racing came under Racing Rules, we used to race in the open desert,” Al Raihe, 73, recalled.
“Such races and horse riding are still widely practiced. It’s a tradition in the country to conduct races in open areas and also ride long distances in the desert as a past time.
“When we were kids, we use to go out pulling a harrow attached to our vehicles to prepare a track for the horses to exercise them and prepare them for these traditional races.
“That was for pure fun at that time. We rode bareback and we didn’t go to riding schools. Horse racing is now well established both for the thoroughbreds and the Purebred Arabians.
“The UAE arguably holds the biggest number of races for the Arabians. Today the breed is better recognised in the flat racing world and as endurance horses.”
On Sunday, Abu Dhabi will host its biggest meeting of the season, a seven-race card highlighted by the Dh5 million Group 1 Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Jewel Crown for Purebred Arabians.
The Emirates Racing Authority was founded in 1992 and conducted races under the Racing Rules.
Prior to that, Dubai hosted its first race meeting in 1981 at a Camel Track, which was organised by Sheikh Mohammed. Three races took place – a sprint, a mile race and a contest over a mile-and-a-half.
Dubai Racing Club was established in 1992 to develop the sport in the city. Later that year, Nad Al Sheba Racecourse was opened, attracting some of the best jockeys in the world including Lester Piggott and Willie Carson.
The biggest breakthrough for racing in Dubai came in 1996 when the Dubai World Cup was launched.
The Meydan Racecourse was opened in March 2010 and replaced Nad Al Sheba as the home of the Dubai World Cup.
The venue can host up to 60,000 spectators and is home to a horse racing museum and a grandstand that stretches over a mile. The 2022 Dubai World Cup is slated for March 26.