These days it would be hard to imagine Dubai's top trainers dieting until they were light enough to ride their own horses in races, but there was a time when just that was not unheard of in the UAE. Meydan Racecourse attracted the very best of the world's jockeys for the Dubai World Cup night in March but when horse racing started in the Emirates, there were not so many professional riders around.
Les Simpson, among the first Western trainers to work in the UAE, remembers those days well. In fact there were times when he had to make the weight himself and ride his horses in races. Now 66, Simpson started training Arabians and a handful of thoroughbreds for Sharjah's Sheikh Abdullah al Qassimi in 1985, before racing adopted formal rules. "There was racing here, but it wasn't what you would call 'racing under rules'," said Simpson, who now works as traveling head man for English trainer, Jeremy Noseda, who sent five horses to Dubai for the International Racing Carnival earlier this year. "There were people training in Umm al Quwain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi but it was very different to how it is now."
Simpson was working on the starting gates on the major racecourses in the south of England when he landed the Sharjah job. "Bill Mather, who trained at Nad al Sheba for Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid passed my details on," said Simpson. "I was very curious and I came out to see what it was all about. "When I got to Sharjah I thought the racetrack looked pretty nice. It was a decent oval, about seven furlongs and had everything we needed."
Every week a group of trainers and owners would get together and organise an informal racecard, which often took place at Sharjah. "We would put together some conditions for the races and we always managed to get together a field of eight," said Simpson. "We weighed in on bathroom scales and the races were started with a flag." At times Simpson, who had served an apprenticeship when he starting out in racing, would be required to get on the scales himself.
"That was a bit of a struggle to make the weight," he admitted. "But I didn't do too badly, I rode four or five winners. But I wasn't the best jockey and I hadn't ridden in years. "The riding was best left to the professionals. There was a very good jockey called Peter Brett, who rode my first winner, a horse called Al Sarim." Musabah al Muhairi, master of Oasis Stables who has enjoyed success last season, was also one of those who sometimes rode in races, although he did it from choice.
"He rode one for me once," said Simpson, who spent his winters in Sharjah and returned to England to continue working on the starting gates in the summer. "It was a horse he owned and I think he just felt like riding. He came second too. He's very wise when it comes to horses." Simpson's stint in the UAE came to an end with the introduction of all-weather racing in the UK which saw him based in England during the winter too. But the Simpson name continues to be involved in racing in the UAE. Simpson's son, Mark, is assistant trainer at Tony Manuel's Blue Stables.
"I have been out regularly to see the changes," said Simpson. "It's amazing, but not really surprising. Back in the day what always impressed me was the love the Arabs have for their horses and their passion in competing. "I was there for the first Dubai World Cup when Cigar won and I'll never forget it. "It was very impressive to see what had been achieved. Meydan opening and is another milestone." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org