Racing: Sheikh Mohammed demonstrates his staying power

Although he has threatened to withdraw from racing in Britain, Sheikh Mohammed's perseverance could not be faulted in an endurance race in Dubai yesterday. Adam Szreter saw him in action.

Despite his heritage, it was still strange to see the slight figure of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, kitted out in full endurance-racing regalia and taking time off from the altogether more serious pursuit of putting the frighteners on the British horse-racing business.

Last week the biggest spender in the sport in Britain was busy making unveiled threats to withdraw his horses from the country unless there are radical funding changes. Yesterday he appeared suddenly, somewhere in the Arabian Desert, about 40 miles outside Dubai.

It was half past four in the morning as Sheikh Mohammed arrived to weigh in for the race, billed as the Desert Giants and part of the International Equestrianism Federation's World Endurance Championship.

Three of his sons were there as well, and a host of other movers and sheikhs. The objective of endurance racing is not speed, but to test the combined efforts of man and beast as they attempt to tackle a 120km course through rough terrain, without putting undue pressure on the beast.

In this race there were four stages, with a 30 minute break between each. Horses' pulse rates are regularly checked by vets to see if their riders are overworking them, thereby incurring penalties, while the first 20 horses home at the end are dope tested. The use of whips and spurs is strictly forbidden.

The nags themselves are some former racers, some thoroughbreds, some pure Arab and most of them owned by Sheikh somebody bin somebody Mak somebody. There was British interest in the shape of Wendy McCawley on Time Traveller, whom she also trains for Sheikh Mohammed.

McCawley finished well down a field that was dominated by Hassan bin Ali on Mr Junabee, owned, by way of variation, by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, another of the Maktoum brothers who have so transformed racing in Britain.

Mr Junabee's only serious problem appeared to be an inability to slow down, thus risking the chance of a heart-rate penalty and possible elimination. Taking water on board as the sun shone after lunch seemed to tax his rider too, as he missed the catch every time anyone threw him a bottle.

In the end the driver was virtually hurling them at him, before offering his advice to the eventual winner who was, understandably, a little put out by the running commentary.

The offender could content himself with chucking a four-wheel drive around the desert and at times it was hard to work out just what the real event was, with more than 50 vehicles performing cartwheels in the sand behind the leading horses.

Sheikh Mohammed was happy to sit just off the pace among the 40 or so competitors, eventually finishing joint sixth before plonking himself down on the floor to tuck into a meal with family and guests in clear view of anyone who cared to ogle.

The winner, Hassan bin Ali, had arrived to a great fanfare and an embrace from Sheikh Mohammed's oldest son, Sheikh Rashid. There was no prize money for Hassan, just the honour of becoming the UAE's representive in next year's world championship, which the Emirates are hoping to host. The game may have moved on, as they say, but there would be no more fitting stage as the race-organiser, Faisal Seddiq, explained.

"Our forefathers and their's before them used to stage marathon endurance tests, especially during weddings of Bedouins and royals, or any important people who could afford to give something to the others."

As far as the good sheikh was concerned, Seddiq said: "He always takes part, and he's one of the good, disciplined riders. I'm sure he was attempting to qualify for the world championship - he's keen."

The race had started at 6am and was still going 12 hours later. The star stayed just long enough to answer one question about the UK: "I think the right time to talk about that will be at the Dubai World Cup," Sheikh Mohammed said, looking forward to the richest race in the world in March. "That way I can talk to many people," he added, and with that he was gone.