DUBAI // Three years in the making, Meydan Racecourse was worth the wait. The new home of Dubai horse racing was inaugurated yesterday with 60,000 witnesses - a crowd that included celebrities, VIPs and some of the fanciest hats in the fashion world. Fans began entering the vast steel-and-glass structure just after 2pm, with double-decker buses ferrying them from the public car parks to the gates where they were checked by security staff.
Performing artists on stilts greeted guests as they made their way to the grandstand, where groups of women outfitted in sundresses and fancy hats huddled around the registration booth for the Style Stakes. Among the more elaborately costumed contestants was Katharina Dietrich, a German designer who travelled to Dubai to be a part of the fashion action. Wearing a UAE flag-inspired satin dress, complete with black equestrian-inspired hat and an umbrella with three hands which she said depicted the diversity of Dubai, Ms Dietrich posed for pictures as the forecourt slowly filled.
Her outfit was, she said, created in homage to Meydan's launch and the emirate she "loved". "I like horses and I like Arabic people and love too much Dubai," she said. "This is to give my respect." For Yana Boleacova, a 22-year-old entrepreneur from Moldova, her outfit a black dress with an elaborate cream headband and hat, and a faux-fur wrap had taken a month of planning. "I love the Dubai World Cup," she said. "It is the atmosphere of the 19th century, when everyone loved horse riding, and this is an amazing event. I have been twice and I always try to enter the style competitions."
The vast racecourse and open views of the track, she said, were far superior to Nad al Sheba, the former home of the meeting. Just before 4pm, a short parade of Arabian horses signalled the start of the afternoon's races. Each rider carried a flag of one of the 27 participating countries. It was on to the first of eight races, the Dubai Kahayla Classic, won by Jaafer. Trackside, thousands of smart-suited men and glamorous women milled about with refreshments, some gathering at the white fences to catch a closer glimpse of the horses.
Among them, Vipin Das, 30, a rider and foreign-exchange worker from Bangalore, was impressed with the quality of the races as well as the spectacle of the event. "The infrastructure is wonderful and the information we have been given about each of the races when we came in has been very helpful," he said. "I was interested to see how the Tapeta surface would be. They say it is fit for any conditions. It's just a shame I can't go and test it out myself."
At dusk in the grandstand, Ramamurthy Muthuqumar and his wife and children cheered with friends as the Emirati jockey, Ahmed Ajtebi, celebrated a victory on Calming Influence in the Godolphin Mile. As his children videotaped the event, Mr Muthuqumar said Meydan's launch was a momentous event for Dubai, one he did not want his children to miss. "It is like a festival, with the games and the music," he said. "Even though the children may not be able to see the racing so well because they are still small, they are still able to enjoy the crowd and the people."
Soon after, the 14 winners of the Dubai World Cup since its inception in 1996 paraded in front of the crowd. At 7.30pm the lights were dimmed and the Meydan acoustic choir performed a haunting, specially composed piece of music to moving images of the development of Meydan and the racecourse. The choir recreated sounds of the evening water pouring, hoofs pounding, the roar of the crowd and the fireworks that were still to come.
In the grandstand, eight-year-old Alamdar Hussain, a pupil at Our Own English High School, and his friend Farhan Ali, nine, from Delhi Private School, were smartly dressed in pinstripe suits. They declared the evening "awesome". "I love the horses, love the horse racing," Alamdar said. "I like the hats well enough but I am not a girl." After an evening of racing and mingling came a specially composed poem by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Meydan Son Et Lumiere & Pyro: a breathtaking half-hour orchestration of light, media and fireworks in three movements. Organisers had described the spectacle as "a celebration of the spirit and emotion of the people of the day" and a "reflection of their emotions".
The first movement celebrated the cheering and the smiles that grew steadily as the evening wore on. The second, a lighting sequence, was a more thoughtful display which John Young, the creative director for the event, had said "reflected the calm of the early mornings on the track" as the mist rises and the horses are training. And the final movement, an explosive celebration of fireworks and lighting, prompted gasps from the spectators.
When it was over, "premiere golden circle" ticket holders made their way to the concert arena to watch the rock stars Elton John and Carlos Santana perform a 90-minute set that continued the carnival feel. Jim Curley, the managing director of the firm responsible for the opening ceremony, said the performers were chosen because they embodied the emotions he hoped to evoke. "They are both very popular in the region [and] have both been around for a long time. They span all age groups, all cultures and appeal to all audiences," he said.