Racing: Thoroughbreds shaded by clouds and camels

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The Independent Online
When you see a lake in the desert it can generally be written off as a mirage, but there was nothing ethereal about the huge puddles around the Nad Al Sheba race-track here yesterday morning. The previous evening's call to prayer had also summoned up a thunderstorm of biblical proportions which raged throughout the night, depositing so much water on this normally bone-dry city that some started to question whether Saturday's Dubai World Cup might succumb to the elements.

A little alarmist, perhaps, but the managers at Nad Al Sheba were sufficiently concerned by the state of the dirt course to place it off-limits for morning exercise. Exercise gallops took place instead on the tight turf circuit inside the dirt track, with the European runners Singspiel and Helissio among those cantering at a gentle half-pace.

The dirt course which will - we hope - stage Saturday's 10-furlong event is chemically sealed, which provides a measure of resistance to rain. No one, however, could have planned for a storm of such magnitude - standing on one side of a modest Dubai street, it was all but impossible to see the other through the descending waterfall - and several trainers were peering glumly at the results yesterday.

"Out by the two-furlong pole it's very deep," Mark Tompkins, who will saddle Even Top on Saturday night, said. "The kickback will be bad, great dollops of it." Another with evident concerns was Takao Nakano, the chain- smoking 56-year-old Japanese trainer of Hokuto Vega, the mare who will take a 10-race winning streak into Saturday's race. "She's the top dirt horse in Japan," Nakano said, "but I'm worried about the track getting sloppy because we race on a much firmer surface at home. Because of that we decided not to send her out today."

Another downpour like Tuesday's on the night before the race would almost certainly mean cancellation, and when the latest weather forecast from air-traffic control included a severe weather warning, at least one member of the Cup Committee was musing about the possibility of postponement. His conclusion was that the logistics of bringing horses, connections and media to Dubai from six countries are such that a postponement of even 24 hours might well be impractical. It was only a little later, when the warning was rescinded, that the anxiety began to wane.

Few trainers are more aware of the course's idiosyncrasies than Kiaran McLaughlin, Dubai's champion trainer for the last two seasons, who will saddle Key Of Luck in the big race this weekend. "This track doesn't handle the rain quite as well as you would like," McLaughlin says, "but if there's no more it will be fine".

The American, a former assistant to D Wayne Lukas, is an important figure in Sheikh Hamdan's bloodstock operation, and has spent the winter taking care of some of the most promising of the owner's three-year-olds. Shaya and Sarayir, who may be targeted at the Derby and Oaks respectively, are two to look out for after their imminent return to Dick Hern's stable, while Khassah, a potential 1,000 Guineas filly, will be returning to John Gosden. In time, McLaughlin expects many more of Sheikh Hamdan's horses to winter in Dubai, in an attempt to match the enormous success of the Godolphin operation set up by his brother, Sheikh Mohammed.

Both brothers saw their colours carried into the frame in yesterday's big race here, but the jockeys were far smaller than Pat Eddery or Frankie Dettori (or even Willie Carson), and their mounts are unlikely to be appearing at the Craven meeting. The Rulers' Cup, the country's most prestigious camel race, was won by an animal from Qatar, but since no-one seemed to know its name, and betting is strictly forbidden, it is fair to say that the spectacle was more important than the result.

The Cup was run - perhaps ambled would be nearer the truth - over a single circuit of Nad Al Sheba's camel track, but since the course is seven miles round, and camels are not quite so fleet of foot as thoroughbreds, the spectators had plenty of time to ponder such nagging questions as where, precisely, the field was.

The distant glint of metal from its accompanying motorcade offered the only, occasional clue, though it was quickly clear from the closed-circuit television that the pride of Qatar was going ominously well in front. The form book comment would have read "soon led, stayed on well from six miles out", and the constant attentions of the child on his back (the jockeys are aged between seven and 11) ensured that he would not be stopping up the long - incredibly long - home straight. If Nad Al Sheba's stewards employed the British "six hit" rule, every runner would have been disqualified within the first 100 yards.

This is a race for honour, not money, and the dubious reward for the winning camel was to have his head and neck daubed with essence of saffron. For the next month or two this will prove to anyone who meets him that he is the fastest camel in the country. Not to mention the one with the strangest hairdo.