The day starts early for Dubai's horse stable lads

At 4.30am, while most of the UAE is still asleep, Rasta, a stable boy at Herman Brown's Blue Stables is just beginning his day.

Not just the grooming but the stable hands, Kaya Mdebengu, Ernest Jalybani and Ayanda Tshukwa, give the horses their share of physical exercise in the morning.
Powered by automated translation

The giant grandstand at Meydan Racecourse is shrouded in a blanket of night when Rasta's phone beeps him awake at 4.30am.

He drags himself out of bed and stands under the shower for five minutes to wash away the sleep, taking care not to get his waist-length dreadlocks wet. Sometimes, if he is feeling lazy, he just washes his face and arms.

He pulls on his clothes, places his hair beneath a red, green and gold cap and walks from the grooms' quarters across 200 yards of packed sand to the loose boxes at Herman Brown's Blue Stables.


More on the Dubai World Cup

Better Than Ever just that, says jockey Saimee Jumaat
JJ The Jet Plane looking to fly in Al Quoz Sprint
Sumii looks to Rulership and Victoire Pisa to give Japan hope
Video: Behind the scenes at the Blue Stables
Rocket Man out to dethrone Kinsale King

Most of the horses, rugged-up against the chill of the desert night, are sleeping. Some are lying on their deep straw beds. They have golden straw stuck to their deep blue rugs and sticking out of their manes and tails.

Rasta sets about his familiar daily routine. "I check that my horse has eaten up his food and drunk his water, although it is hard to tell here because the water buckets fill automatically when the level drops," he said.

Rasta puts his hands into the feed bucket. Two handfuls of feed remaining is not good, one is OK.

"I check that the droppings are healthy, that they are not too wet," he said.

"Then I muck out. I take the droppings and the wet straw and replace it with clean straw."

The groom says he barely notices any horsey smells any more.

Mucking out gives way to grooming, which in turns leads to tacking-up, when Rasta puts the saddle and bridle on his horse. Then he is ready to go to the track.

If you were to rise early enough and wander through the stables, you would see six orderly piles of dust on the floor outside each one, imprinted with the teeth marks of a rubber curry comb.

Rasta bangs the dust out of the brush so he and everybody else can see how much scurf he has removed from his charge's coat.

Even in dull light, the horses gleam. Under floodlights on race night, they glisten with health.

"This season we must have won 12 Best Turned Out," said Rasta, whose charge, Paulinho, has claimed two of the race-day beauty contests.

Bankable, Brown's Dubai Duty Free contender, has for two seasons won Best Turned Out every time he has appeared in the Dubai parade ring, a testament to his groom, Ayanda Tshukwa.

"I enjoy cleaning the horse to make him look very shiny," Rasta said. "That is where everything begins. You massage the horse with the rubber. You stimulate the blood before you train. On race day, you know your horse is looking good and you feel proud."

Once the horse is groomed and the saddle and bridle are on, Rasta and the other riders mount up and walk their charges single file in a "string" to the track for morning exercise.

"We pull out just before dawn," said Rasta, who rides Carnival winner Bronze Cannon and Brown's new recruit, the UAE Derby-bound Sweet Ducky in the mornings. "When the sun comes up, I am happy because I can see where my horse is walking. I do not like to ride in the dark because I don't want him to step in a hole."

When Rasta gets to the track, he follows directions. His horse may just canter or he may go at three-quarter pace. He may even work at a full gallop, depending on how fit he is and the proximity of a race.

Afterwards, Rasta and the rest of the string walk back to the stables, where the horses are hosed down, dried off and settled back into their clean stables.

If required, Rasta may return to the track with the second string.

"The last thing I do in the mornings is feed my horse," he said. "I also take out any new droppings because I don't want any flies to come to him during the day and bother him."

Then Rasta goes back to the room he shares with Tshukwa, has a quick wash and change of clothes before heading to breakfast at the International Stables at about 10.30am.

Rasta has followed variations of the same routine in either South Africa or Dubai, every working day for more than two decades.

He could be termed a "stable lad", although, at 42, he is hardly a lad any more. The career groom and work rider has spent every one of his 24 years on the job working for the Durban-based Brown family, first Herman Brown senior and now his current boss who took over when the older Brown retired 17 years ago.

Of course, "Rasta" is not his real name. But everyone, his boss and his friends and colleagues - all call him that.

His mother would call him Ernest - Ernest Jalabanye. He is from South Africa's Xhosa people, the same tribe as Nelson Mandela, the country's former leader.

Rasta and the other stable lads in South Africa have nicknames for everybody they work with. The older Brown has long been called "sakalemtutu", which loosely translates to "bag of millet" because he would provide the grooms with the millet flour they liked to cook with.

Rasta's current boss has been dubbed "mazamba" or "potatoes".

"He was already called that when I went to work for him," Rasta said. "I never asked why."

Brown himself explains it is because, as a child, he grew potatoes in a vegetable patch. Long-serving grooms began calling him that and the name has stuck for almost 50 years.

As well as his long dreadlocks, which are contained under the cap when he works and bound with a bandana when he rides, Rasta also follows Rastafari teachings and does not eat meat, drink alcohol or carry knives or guns.

And unlike many who dedicate their lives to horses, Rasta was not drawn to the stable yard through a deep love of the animals.

In fact, the opposite is true. As a young man, Rasta hated horses. He only considered embarking on the life of a stable lad because he really needed the money.

"On January 3, 1988, I started to work with Herman Brown and he was a very cool trainer," said Rasta, who left school at 13 and initially laboured on sugar cane plantations. "My parents were poor and I wanted to help.

"I never knew that I wanted to work with horses. But I needed a job and there was a place in Summerveld, where a lot of people were learning to work with horses.

"I was scared," he said in soft, accented English. "When I was young my brother and I took my grandfather's horse to the river.

"We didn't have a bridle, just a rope around his neck and, on the way back, I jumped on to ride. But my brother chased the horse and he flew up the hill, passed our house and there was nothing I could do to stop him. I was frightened of horses after that. So I was worried that I would not enjoy working with horses."

But after his initial reluctance Rasta, who is father to Asanda, aged nine, excelled at his new career. Years after that first intensive equine course in Summerveld he went to Groom School and graduated top of his class with 90 per cent, proving just how far he had come.

In 2005 he came to Dubai for the first time on his first-ever flight.

"The boss told me that he was going to take some horses to Dubai and asked if I wanted to go. I asked how we would get there and he said we would fly," Rasta said. "I was so interested to come but I was unsure because it was the first time on a flight but I wanted to have that opportunity."

Now he comes to Dubai most years for the winter season, where Brown's string has enjoyed success, winning the Dubai Duty Free in 2008 with Jay Peg and claiming a Group race every year.

The stable gets five per cent of any prize money its horses win in Dubai and that money is split between all staff. So if a small stable wins a valuable race it can be quite lucrative.

This year, in his fifth decade, Rasta has finally joined the cyber age after buying his first laptop. And racing has opened doors to other new experiences.

In 2007 he travelled with one of Brown's horses to Hong Kong. There he stayed in a hotel for the first time. He packed towels, food, toilet paper and even bedding.

"It was like I was leaving for a year," Rasta said. "My boss's assistant, Nicolas, told me those things would be there at the hotel. He also showed me how to order room service. I ordered food and I was ready for bed in boxer shorts and a vest. After I had eaten I put the tray outside the room."

But the door swished closed on its sprung hinges leaving the wirily muscular Rasta, dressed only in his underwear, stranded in the corridor of a five-star hotel. He was forced to pad barefoot down to the lobby.

"I was embarrassed and so stressed that I could not remember the room number of Nicolas to ask his help," Rasta shakes his head at the memory. "Luckily, I can remember my passport number so they gave me a new card."

And though staying at a five-star hotel was a novel experience for Rasta, he says he prefers rooming with his colleagues at the stable yard.

"I was lonely," he said. "I prefer to be with my friends. We can talk and joke."

On Saturday Rasta will be leading up Sweet Ducky before the UAE Derby. He will be wearing smart clothes with his hair hidden beneath a muted rasta cap.

The stable has only had charge of Sweet Ducky for a week but you can be sure that Rasta will have the horse gleaming like the surface of a dark lake.