Meydan racecourse under starter's orders

With room for 60,000 spectators, a five-star hotel and a cinema, the Dubai track could attract new fans to watch the horses.

Four years after construction began, Dubai's Meydan Racecourse will host its first race tonight. Above, a jockey gets a preview of the synthetic track yesterday.
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DUBAI // Four years after construction began, the Meydan Racecourse will host its first race tonight, with an eye on establishing itself as one of the world's leading horse racing venues. The course, estimated to have cost Dh10 billion (US$2.7bn), has a capacity for 60,000 racegoers, who can watch the action from a 1.6km-long grandstand, which has a 5,000-capacity Sky Bubble lounge on top.

As if the thrill of the race were not enough, the 18 square km site also boasts a five-star hotel, an Imax cinema and a museum. The complex, which is nearly complete, is intended to be a year-round entertainment and social venue. It was built on the site of the Nad al Sheba racecourse, which hosted the Dubai World Cup for the past 14 seasons. Frank Gabriel, the chief executive of the Dubai Racing Club (DRC), said Meydan would allow the emirate's racing season - known as the Dubai International Racing Carnival - to continue growing its worldwide reputation.

"The grandstand and facilities here can broaden exposure of thoroughbred racing to people in the UAE and beyond," he said yesterday. "As we have more facilities, we are able to initiate programmes to attract children and families and make Thursday evenings special." From its inaugural race in 1995, the Dubai World Cup has been run on a dirt track. However, a new synthetic all-weather course will attract turf-trained horses and offer spectators the chance to see the very best compete in the world's richest race.

"The synthetic track opens up the world to us and offers different options," said Mr Gabriel. "Spectators will be closer to the action than Nad al Sheba as most races start and finish in front of the grandstand. We hope to recreate the great atmosphere that built up at Nad al Sheba." It is hoped that Meydan, which has double the capacity of Nad al Sheba, will attract 300,000 spectators to the racing carnival that begins tonight and culminates with the Dubai World Cup in March. General admission to regular Thursday meetings will be free.

"There are local supporters who share the Royal Family's love for horses but we also hope to attract new fans. There are not many places in the world that can attract 60,000 spectators to a horse race," Mr Gabriel said. Saeed al Tayer, the chairman of Meydan, said although he expected an initial "wow factor", the course's long-term success would rest on the reaction of the racing fraternity. "The priority for us is that the horses have smooth movement from arrival to departure. Feedback from jockeys has been positive and we have ironed out a few last-minute problems," he said.

"Meydan is designed as an attraction. The Imax cinema will host conferences and the museum will be an educational facility and tourist experience. "We will not only focus on the history of racing but also the traditions of the desert and the local environment. We have been looking at how to make Meydan an all-year round attraction." Several trial races have been staged to ensure that the 1.75km course is safe and ready for competition.

The gates open at 4pm for tonight's eight-race programme, including the prestigious Maktoum challenge. Racing begins at 6pm.