Racing: Sun rises on the new world order

Sue Montgomery in Dubai watches a sport enter a different era
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The Independent Online
DAWN IN the desert is fast and fierce. Images and atmospheres tumble swiftly out of the darkness one upon the other, seemingly bidding to overload senses accustomed to a gentler break of day. In a matter of minutes the landscape - flat scrubland giving way to wind-hewn dunes - is stripped of all secrecy. The blinding orb of the sun rises swiftly to diffuse subtleties of perspective - a shade-filled hollow here, the criss-cross of wheeltracks there - leaving a vista bathed in flat, white, unrelenting light.

And the heat. Desert nights are hot, but the days almost preclude movement. North American racing has, as a body, recently adopted the promotional slogan "Go Baby Go". Here in Dubai, where three US-trained gallopers challenge today for the $5m World Cup, "Burn Baby Burn" might be a more appropriate epithet.

As a warm-up - and the words are used advisedly - to the world's richest horse race its creator, General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and United Arab Emirates Minister of Defence (for such is he known locally), went back to his roots in a cauldron of bleached sand, rock and dust.

Sheikh Mohammed may be the owner of the globe's largest racing stable but he is also a horseman, two states which do not always go hand in hand. His hobby is competitive endurance riding, a gruelling sport at which the horses closest to his heart - the Arab breed - excel. Early on Wednesday morning Mohammed, on the grey 16-year-old High Winds Jedi, set out with 52 others to cover 80 miles of flatlands and wadis in the remote Sector Nine of the desert about an hour's drive - the last half-hour across barely discernible and often treacherous tracks - south of Dubai City.

Temperatures soared to three figures in the shade, had there been any. The departure and return of competitors, who completed the course in four huge loops to and from base camp, was marked by risen dust. In a world- class invitational field Mohammed spent seven hours in the saddle to finish 15th of the 26 survivors. To his delight, his teenage son, Sheikh Rashid, won the race.

If you like, such a contest in such an environment puts Mohammed in his correct setting. It may even explain something about the sometimes unsettling traits to his character.

The desert is harsh, implacable. The city of Dubai, one of the youngest in the world, has been carved out of it, but only on sufferance. When the wind blows from the interior, sand heaps across the four-lane coastal highway. The desert would reclaim its own in a minute if left alone. Give it an inch and it would take all.

Mohammed's ancestors, and not such distant ones at that, lived in the desert, but only on its terms. Survival was always the prime directive; the horse was life itself to the Bedouin. To have the best horses was a matter of fierce pride. In his quest for racing world domination Mohammed has done little but transfer the desires of his heritage to the modern arena. The petrodollar has provided the means.

Today's race, run in the heat of the night (local time) under the glare of 30 new floodlights which would surely generate enough energy to supply a medium-sized Midlands city for a week, is the fourth renewal of a contest established with the objective of bringing together the best older horses in the world. Improved air transport has swept away international boundaries as far as racing is concerned. Mohammed has locked into the trend, hence this week's announcement of another of his brainchildren, a grand prix- style series built on existing top-level races round the globe, and his well- documented first attack on the Kentucky Derby in May.

Next year's Dubai World Cup will be the final race on the inaugural circuit, which kicks off with the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot in July. And in truth, for all its fabulous prize money - the winner's purse is $3m - it probably needs a boost. Today's race, with only eight runners (five of them Classic winners in Europe and America), is Sheikh Mohammed - in the form of his Dubai-based Godolphin operation - versus North America. The sole British-based contender is Running Stag; the other leading racing nations - France, Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and South America - and Europe's other high- rolling owners are notable by their absence.

One significant historical landmark has been achieved, however. With Godolphin's new recruit High-Rise and last year's winner, Silver Charm, in the field, it is the first meeting of winners of the Epsom and Kentucky Derbies since the Churchill Downs hero Zev thrashed Epsom victor Papyrus in an ill-conceived (from the British point of view) match at Belmont in 1923. High-Rise, the choice of Frankie Dettori, will be aiming to avenge the narrow defeat of the Godolphin colour bearer Swain last year. The four-year-old has reportedly taken well to the dirt surface and is third market pick; Silver Charm - whose trainer Bob Baffert has more pressing business with the Classic prospect Straight Man in Cincinnati this weekend - is favourite to double up.

Silver Charm is a redoubtable competitor with a wholly admirable attitude to his job. But this time round he may have to give best to the year-younger Victory Gallop, who deprived Silver Charm's stablemate Real Quiet of a US Triple Crown when he won the last leg, the Belmont Stakes.

Running Stag, trained by Philip Mitchell, is the rank outsider. But Richard Cohen's colt picked up valuable prize-money in a spirited North American campaign last autumn, owes nothing to anybody and is thoroughly worth his place in today's field. He was only a length and a half behind Silver Charm at Churchill Downs four months ago and has shown improved form in training in the blinkers he will sport for the first time in public today.