Under early starters' orders

Pat Buckley tells how he tries to balance the needs of owners with the desire to entertain spectators in Abu Dhabi.

Horses set off on a race at Nad Al Sheba last year; the new season gets underway at this track tomorrow.
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The new season roars into life at Nad Al Sheba tomorrow when the first of 46 meetings at the three courses in the country takes place. The Dubai track, beginning its last campaign before giving way to the adjacent Dh 4.6billion Meyden complex, will also stage the finale of the season - the showpiece Dubai World Cup on March 28.

In between there will be 10 Friday meetings at Jebel Ali and 15 Sunday programmes at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club, overseen by the secretary and clerk of the course Pat Buckley. The affable Irishman has bloodstock running through his veins, the former jump jockey having won the Grand National at Aintree way back in 1963 on an unfancied horse called Ayala. He cringes when told that the biggest day of his career was over 45 years ago and points out that he would shortly qualify for an old age pensioner's bus pass if he chose to abandon his adopted Emirati home and return to his roots.

Not that he is planning such drastic action. The traditional pipe and slippers in front of a glowing fire can wait for a while as Buckley works feverishly to ensure that another big opening night in Abu Dhabi on Sunday runs smoothly. To say that Buckley has been single-handedly responsible for the emergence of Abu Dhabi as a stronghold for Arabian purebred racing may be stretching a point, but it is fair to say that, by a distance in racing parlance, he has done more than anybody to put the capital on the racing map in the region if not the world.

A "Jack of all trades" when he arrived, he has wound down some of his duties as the years have passed by. But he will still be the focal figure when the first batch of horses go down to the starting gate for what will be an earlier-than-usual opening race at 5pm on Sunday. "I think that is a bit early for the race-going public," said Buckley, who resisted the change of starting time but eventually accepted it as a fait accompli.

"It is fine for the professionals in the sport but it is not a great idea for attracting crowds." That comment emphasises Buckley's priorities. His main objectives are to serve those who share his affection for the sport - spectators and then the owners and trainers. Without crowds there is no spectacle - that is his motto - but he balances that with the view that he must provide a competitive standard of racing to ensure that the fans keep attending. That is often his biggest nightmare.

"The difficulty is catering for the demands of all the Arab horses," he explained. "We simply have to give them a chance to run and that is often easier said than done. We have a safety limit here of 16 runners but it is not unusual to have 30 or more acceptors for the races. "If a horse misses his chance, it can be more than a month before he gets another opportunity to run and that is not acceptable to some of the owners and trainers.

"So on occasions, I have to try to anticipate their requirements and come up with a programme that will suit them. You know you can't please everybody all of the time, but you have to try. "We had 1300 runners in 96 races last year so the average is pretty good. We are not helped by some owners entering horses and then not running them. "That makes me wonder why I bother but it is my passion." The need to provide a glimpse of thoroughbred racing to Abu Dhabi patrons is also uppermost in Buckley's mind. There were only nine thoroughbred races in the 15 meetings last season and that figure is going to be the same over the winter months.