The suburban Sluzewiec Racetrack, buried among drab grey tenement blocks on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland, is far removed from the UAE's Meydan Racecourse - the world's biggest and most expensive where even the dirt comes at a premium price. Sluzewiec opened in 1939, just months before the outbreak of World War II. As a result of its location 20 kilometres south of the city centre, it managed to avoid substantial damage during the onslaught that flattened the majority of Warsaw. But for all its history, it is the spectators rather than the whitewashed walls in the clubhouse that provide the colourful atmosphere.
Yesterday, under the mid-afternoon sunshine, several hundred racing enthusiasts turned out to witness the first race for Arabian Purebred horses on Polish soil. The Group Three race, worth ?20,000 (Dh93,300), was part of the seven-event Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival, held under the patronage of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, and organised by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH).
Why ADACH would choose to focus its attention on Warsaw - a city whose own promotional pamphlets admit appears at first glance to be a "gloomy concrete city" - is not immediately obvious. However, after a little investigation, the reasons become more apparent. Ties to Arabia are subtle but substantial in the Polish capital: from the shwarma stands that sit on every corner around the bustling city centre, to the sheesha cafes that fill each night with merry Poles.
And while the majority of European countries experienced an economic slump in 2010 following the global recession, Poland recorded a one per cent profit, and analysts predict that figure will rise to three per cent by December. Suddenly Abu Dhabi's desire to strengthen its ties with Poland appear well researched; the UAE embassy opened here for the first time 18 months ago. "Poland is very important to the United Arab Emirates," said Asim Mirza al Rahmah, the UAE ambassador based in Warsaw. "Geographically it is situated in the heart of Europe and with a population of 40 million, we see it as a very important trading partner. Through the embassy, we work together to promote our heritage and culture through trading and sporting endeavours, such as this festival."
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, or "Szejk Zayed" as the Polish community happily referred to him on the sidelines of Sluzewiec yesterday, is said to have been a firm believer in exporting Emirati culture while preserving the country's heritage. In a bid to continue the country's founding father's work, ADACH earlier this summer launched an initiative, which was organised to run alongside the festival.
The Zayed Cup, or, to give the three-race series its proper name - the Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan's Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival's Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Cup. It is a three-race competition that is incorporated into events in France, Holland and Poland, and offers a ?20,000 bonus purse to the horse who performs best throughout. It was won yesterday by the Saudi Arabia-owned Muqatil al Khalidiah. "The whole point in this race is to promote the heritage and traditions of the UAE," said Abdullah al Qubaisi, the director of ADACH, who for the weekend swapped his dishdasha for a smart suit and a smile as wide as the Wisla river.
"We are so proud today, because by bringing the first ever Arabian thoroughbred race to Poland, we are able to increase interest in our culture abroad as well as recognising the long-standing history this country has for Arabian horses," he said. While the average Pole on the street may not be overly familiar with the Emirates - six of the seven customers in the cafe next to the UAE embassy were unable to correctly identify the country's flag - those donning hats and talking horses on the sidelines of Sluzewiec appeared better informed.
"I know about Abu Dhabi, of course," said Aleksandra Szychlinska, dressed in a sleeveless blue dress and straw hat, while enjoying her first experience of a horse race. "I think these days everybody knows something about Abu Dhabi." "I've never visited Abu Dhabi, but I have been to Dubai," said Patricia Grudzien, a capital markets analyst from Warsaw. "The UAE is the financial hub of the Middle East, so I know it well. It has lots of potential and even with a recession, it continues to grow.
"I do not know so much about Sheikh Mansour, but I have read the booklets they are giving out so I know at least that he has a long, beautiful relationship with horses. I am glad this race has come here because it can only help improve racing in this country." Through the hosting of Arabian thoroughbred races across the globe, both the Racing Festival and the Zayed Cup are strengthening perceptions of the region's passion for purebloods.
But Poland, as its racing enthusiasts are keen to make known, has a long-standing historical relationship of its own with horses. And despite the geographical map pitting Poland 4,000 kilometres from Abu Dhabi, the Arabian Purebred has history here also. "Poland has a very long tradition with the stables," Grudzien said. "But Arabian horses are traditionally more admired for their looks, not their speed. That is why I was so keen to come to this race and see them run."
The first horse race held in the country was between a Polish nobleman and an English envoy in 1777. The Polish mare triumphed and its owner took the victory as a sign of his country's ability to compete with nations that already had long horse racing traditions. But it was some 200 years earlier that Poland first began its love affair with Arabian thoroughbreds. In the 16th century, when the Polish army defeated the Ottoman cavalry in Austria and dispossessed them of their purebloods, the country's residents revelled in the fact Arabian horses were lighter, more agile and stronger physically than what they were accustomed to. Breeding became commonplace and Arabian Purebloods were used in warfare for the next 400 years.
Only with the introduction of more advanced technology were Arabian Purebloods removed from the front line and recognised more for their beauty than their brawn. "They are the closest animal I have ever seen to a unicorn," said Aneta Cebic Baroudi, a Polish spectator who lives in New York. "So strong and beautiful; I love them. They are not as tall, but they are so resilient. Their silhouette is incredible."
It is not only those watching from the stands who enjoy the thrill of a majestic Arabian mare galloping at full speed, the jockeys too enjoy racing Arabian thoroughbreds. Charles Nora, the Frenchman who saddled Sheikh Mansour's Salaamah to a second-place finish in Frankfurt earlier this month, said while he enjoys racing all breeds, he has a special relationship with Arabian Purebloods. "Arabian thoroughbreds are very handsome horses and I don't know why, but I find them easy to ride. I always ride them with my heart because I love them and it helps now that they are much more competitive than they were before - especially Shiekh Mansour's horses. They are so strong; I really enjoy riding for him."
Jerzy Engel, a young Pole whose family business is breeding horses, said he believed yesterday's race could be mutually beneficial for both countries with the UAE attaining exposure and Polish racing gaining some prestige. "Arabian horses are the most unpredictable, that is why their races are the most fun to watch," he said. "Races like this though also bring revenue to the country's racing industry, which can only help improve the facilities and infrastructure.
"To be honest, this track needs a revamp. It has not seen been developed enough in recent years and is falling behind. With the announcement that the Sheikh Mansour Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival will return to Poland for the next three years at least, the country's racing industry has an opportunity to develop further. But it is the development of the Arabian Pureblood that ADACH is more concerned for.
"It is of incredible importance that we continue to develop and promote the history and tradition of the Arabian thoroughbred," Al Qubaisi said. "If races such as these can achieve that, then we are doing a successful job," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org