DUBAI // As some of the world's most valuable thoroughbred horses prepare to take part in the Dubai World Cup this Saturday, the focus is on ensuring its star participants receive five-star treatment. At the offices of the International Stables in Nad Al Sheba, the manager Feargal Cooper's phone rings every few minutes as the last of about 40 horses from almost 30 countries arrive and get settled in. An adjacent facility is caring for local entrants.
They are, stables co-ordinator Jim Cornes said with a chuckle, "kind of like rock stars", only with slightly less outlandish demands. All of their needs, from diet through to bedding and training schedules, must be met to ensure their well-being. Much like the jockeys riding them, the horses are not immune from jet lag either. "It's a busy time but it's fun," Mr Cornes said. "The horses are the stars. You are basically the concierge for them and the people with them, some of whom stay at hotels off-site and others live on the facility, near to the horses."
Preparation for the influx of international arrivals, some worth millions of dollars, began last September with meetings between event organisers and agents responsible for targeting the best horses for the Dubai International Racing Carnival and the Cup. Adrian Beaumont, the European recruiting agent for the events, said that while invitations to the emirate usually prompt an exceptionally good response from owners- "the money is great and the way they are treated is fantastic"- some trainers needed convincing about the newly laid Tapeta synthetic surface covering the 1,750-metre track at Meydan. They were flown to Dubai last December to ensure their satisfaction.
"Thoroughbreds are really delicate and pick up injuries really easily on fast ground, uneven ground, so trainers are ultra professional," Mr Cooper says. "Everything from the things they eat to the horse box through to the time that they arrive here - everything has purpose." Almost immediately after confirming participation, communication begins between Mr Cooper's team and the trainers to check the horse's dietary requirements.
"We will also ship in a fair amount of feed," said Mr Cornes. "They might be used to a certain brand. If we can match it here, fine. If not, we would find a close to equal match." Dietary schemes tend to vary from trainer to trainer. For example, some will feed their horses additives such as vegetables or fruits mixed in with the feed. "The Japanese feed their horses bananas," Mr Cooper said. "Then there are some supplements we need to get in, molasses, some mix quail eggs in with one type of feed, or grass chopped up." Bottled water is also available for the horses on request.
Trainers are also particular when it comes to what their horses have in their stalls. Bedding requirements range from dust-free wood chips and "good old fashioned straw", as Mr Cooper calls it, to four different types of hay, newspaper and even peat in extreme cases. Some 66 staff, most from India and Pakistan, are on hand at the stables to provide all the basic grooming and mucking-out services. It is a service unique to Dubai that allows travelling teams to focus on the horse and last-minute preparation.
"They have a grazing area, a ring and a swimming pool next door for the horses," Mr Cooper said. "It's an 80-metre pool and they do laps of it. It's an aerobic exercise for the horse without the stress of training and it's refreshing at this time of year. The horses just love it." While some of the thoroughbreds have been in Dubai since last December, others were still arriving last weekend. Some have flown for as long as 14 hours, sometimes with veterinary supervision and always with their own passport.
While most handle their change of scenery without incident, others tend to be nervous travellers. "Overall 99.9 per cent of them travel extremely well," said Mr Cornes. "Some suffer with jet lag a little bit. Some bounce right back into it, some need a day or two. Usually, the longer the journey, the longer it takes to adjust, but they are great creatures and they do adapt to their surroundings." Acclimatisation, particularly for those horses leaving what has been a particularly long and cold European winter, can be an issue and a 48-hour mandatory resting period is implemented on arrival.
Their temperature is taken regularly, blood is drawn soon after arrival and their eating habits and water consumption are observed by a veterinarian from the Dubai Equine Hospital to ensure they are in good health. The stables are all kept under quarantine, according to international guidelines, and access is limited to authorised personnel to allow the horses plenty of rest and calm. With just a few days remaining until the race, most horses are being familiarised with the race course. The tension, Mr Cooper said, will rise as the last of the trainers arrive.
"Some of the horses can be on their toes before the race," he said. "Some are more highly strung than others. The horse that will be mentally stronger than the others performs better, handles the parades and the whole event better." firstname.lastname@example.org