Racing: Atlantis rises amid the ships of the desert: The Maktoums aim to turn Dubai into a global gateway for further conquests. Richard Edmondson reports

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The Independent Online
IT ALL started for Dubai at the time when Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup. While England unearthed a team to capture the most sought-after prize in football, an even more valuable discovery was made in the Gulf. Namely, vast reserves of the thick liquid which funded Jed Clampett's relocation from the mountains to Beverly Hills.

Over the last 20 years, the offshore oil rigs of this part of the United Arab Emirates have enabled the ruling Maktoum brothers to establish themselves as the globe's premier racehorse owners. But now the hobby element of the sport is over and the Maktoums mean business. Horse business.

The International Jockeys' Challenge last Friday was a gloriously labelled, yet inconsequential, flagship for Dubai, but more serious is the emirate's view of its racing future. Through the window the Maktoums see a thriving internal home circuit They seek no less than recognition as a major international centre of racing.

Even 10 years ago, this suggestion would have elicited, at best, guffaws. But while the spectacular lands of the sea and the jungle, Atlantis and the Lost City, have yet to be located, their counterpart in the desert is all too real.

If, as capitalists believe, money can buy anything, Dubai will overcome its many inherent weaknesses which hamper the emergence of a flourishing racing scene. The temperature and absence of rolling acres mean that breeding and rearing thoroughbreds is impossible.

Even the Maktoums cannot change the climate (though long-term residents here do say winters have become wetter and summers more humid since sprinklers started pumping millions of gallons of water into the atmosphere). No matter, the family says, they will staff the nation's stables with animals bred at their many stud farms across the world.

The formation of the Godolphin company means that up to 100 mares will produce offspring to spend part of their lives in Dubai. These animals will be nurtured in the Gulf, race abroad and then be brought back to form the bedrock of home racing, when sold at auction to a wider circle of owners.

The Maktoums need to introduce more of their countrymen to the sport. At the moment the racing has a strange feel of boys with their train sets, as small fields of family-owned competitors take each other on. This may be as it was in Britain 200 years ago, when noblemen and their entourages filed out into a field to pit their best horses against one another. Modern incentives are in place, however, not least the monthly training bills of 1,700 dirhams (about pounds 300) charged by the seven main stables (one of the brothers, Sheikh Mohammed, patronises five of them).

Owners from outside the Gulf are a rare breed, though Robert Sangster does have a presence, and an invitational race with an eye-catching reward is planned to entice more visitors next season.

But most alien to the foreigners is the absence of betting, without which, as any bookmaker will tell you, racing cannot survive. The only avenue of speculation currently is the pick-six, which entails forecasting all the winners at a meeting. Success here guarantees either a cash prize or a vehicle.

Mention the introduction of more traditional wagering to fundamentalists and the reaction would be one of indignation. But then it was probably so when alcohol was first mooted and the local hotels now serve drinks like similar establishments in most other parts of the world.

The philosophy here appears to be that if Westerners and their wallets are to be attracted to Dubai, elements of their culture must also be tolerated.

And it is clear that a similar argument may be stretched to betting and that the topic has been under discussion. 'If we do have betting here, the money will come back to racing,' Colonel Ali Khamis Al Jafleh, the chairman of the Dubai Racing Club, revealed last week.

The value of all this to average British punters is, of course, limited. Though Ladbrokes claim that pounds 100,000 was wagered in Britain on the Jockeys' Challenge, mainly because familiar jockeys and horses provided a hook into the card, Dubai will never capture a mass interest in Europe.

With the four-hour time difference and a season that stretches from mid-October to the end of April, the evening racing may occasionally be buzzing along in the betting shops as the weather intervenes here. But in terms of visiting clientele, Dubai is looking for the financially-mobile enthusiasts currently drawn to places such as Hong Kong, the icon of achievement for many in the emirates.

The colony has various sporting themes to pull in the people with travellers' cheques, and Dubai is no different. Before racing got an outing there were other international lures in the shape of rallying, powerboat racing, snooker and golf. The focal point of the last-named is the Emirates Golf Club and a tournament on the PGA tour, which carries the threat of the world's largest bunker for those who go outside the course's perimeter.

There are stark contrasts everywhere. The huge Trade Centre, which looks almost a twin for Canary Wharf, dominates the skyline, but just miles from the business centre there is nothing but dust. One false manoeuvre off the four-lane highway here can be as disastrous as a wrong turn out of Miami airport. The staffing of service jobs is reminiscent of another part of the United States, Los Angeles, where Latinos are dominant among the ordinary workforce.

In Dubai, it is Filipinos as well as those from the Indian sub-continent, who supply most of the stable staff, who serve an indigenous group which makes up about 13 per cent of the population. This small band is thought to be, per capita, the richest people alive.

At the racecourse, there is a jostling of cultures. The sport is run under British rules and even the spectre of the bowler hat can be seen on occasions, but in the crowd on Friday were signs of a different civilisation.

Praying has long been part of proceedings for British punters, but at Nad Al Sheba the practice took on a more selfless detail, as about 20 men bowed towards Mecca (incidentally, directly away from the racecourse). Other customs to be aware of in this land are never to point soles of your feet at an Arab, never offer or take food with your left hand and never eat, drink, smoke or even chew gum in daylight during the fasting month of Ramadan.

These are central tenets to the faith, much as the Maktoums are the fulcrum of the nation. Even at the racecourse the hierarchy of the archery tournament prevails, as the ruling family occupies the dead centre of the stand, surrounded by relatives and friends.

The brothers' hand is everywhere, but none more peculiarly for Westerners than in their respect for the camel. Man's best friend in the desert is now a sporting animal and treated with equal reverence to the racehorse.

The dromedary lines may not be as pleasing on the eye as a sleek thoroughbred, the movements somewhat less gracious, but there is equal status in competition. Last week it was the Oaks (for those with humps) over six kilometres, a journey during which the young riders were constantly cajoled by telecommunciation from men in cars along the rails. The winner, it was said, was now worth pounds 500,000.

There are 100,000 camels within a 25km radius of Dubai, and 6,000 of those (presumably some of the good ones) belong to Sheikh Mohammed. At the city's feed mill, the diet of both horse and camel is examined delicately. Cartoon-book wisdom has it that camels have one good drink-up and then disappear into the dunes for a fortnight before the napkin comes out again. If that was once reality, today's troupe must wonder where all the food is coming from.

Sustenance comes round four, sometimes five, times a day and is composed of a cereal cocktail of oats, barley, maize and wheat that would not look out of place on a health-farm breakfast bar. Pampering continues with the camel treadmills, swimming pool and hospital. The physiology of the animal is currently being studied with the aim of improving performance and involves the messy business of taking urine samples. 'We need a sort of nappy, a sleeve and a big bucket,' Jaap Wennvoort, the mill's Dutch nutritionist, reports. 'Boy, it's difficult.'

But, to the Arabs, it is a serious business and one they have made work. Until the day when offshore rigs are nothing more than derelict monuments to the outrageous prosperity oil has brought to Dubai, the Maktoums also aim to make horseracing work as an industry in this corner of the Middle East.

'This is the best place for a thoroughbred to be travelling from east or west,' Al Jafleh says. 'To the Breeders' Cup or the Melbourne Cup.

'We don't forget that thoroughbreds are business and the idea is to attract more owners and trainers and be part of international racing. Here is the new door for the thoroughbred.'

(Photograph omitted)

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