Chris McGrath: Dubai has changed turf landscape

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

You would love to hear what Tom Jones makes of it all. Knowing the man who trained Tingle Creek – the steeplechaser whose effervescent approach to his own calling is honoured by the big race at Sandown today – the chances are that he would raise an eyebrow, open a bottle, and invite odds against him getting down the ballroom staircase on a silver tray. And quite right too.

Jones died two years ago this week, just four days before the race commemorating his best jumper, a horse who treated the notoriously tricky obstacles at Sandown as a matter for undiluted relish. One of the last and best of the old school, Jones embraced life with no less wit or conviction. And he was nobody's fool. He was one of the first men vested with the biggest investment ever made in British horseracing, and his prognosis would be welcomed now by those who suddenly fear they may become the last.

In his heyday, Jones trained 80 horses for Sheikh Hamdan, one of the Maktoum brothers whose empire has since become the bedrock of the global sport. So many now owe their livelihoods to Dubai that the convulsions of the stock markets barely registered next to the panic infecting trainers and breeders when, last week, fissures of debt ruptured gorily into public view.

Over the past three decades, the ruling family of Dubai has spent incalculable billions buying, racing and rearing horses. If anything, moreover, spending has soared anew during the past couple of years – with Sheikh Mohammed, in particular, responding to stagnation in his racing and breeding interests with an unprecedented spree of investment. Meanwhile, it is estimated that the Maktoums accounted for 17 per cent of revenue at the latest round of yearling sales, in the process heroically shoring up a market in luxury goods nakedly exposed to recession.

Nor is it just the professionals who have become complacent in the Maktoums' support. Anyone tuning into Channel 4's coverage of Sandown will be indebted to Sheikh Mohammed for a benign sponsorship deal that more or less rescued terrestrial horseracing from oblivion.

Little wonder if people are feeling jittery. But perhaps they should heed the blithe spirit of Jones, whose first observation would surely be that they can now find out for themselves whether it is true – as Sheikh Mohammed has long protested – that horseracing accounts for an infinitesimal fraction of his time, energy and wealth.

Parochial as they are, racing folk can never really bring themselves to accept that. They cannot believe that someone can be so important in their lives, without affording them a corresponding role in his own. But anyone who has seen the bigger picture in Dubai – and whether they like the bigger picture is neither here nor there – must surely acknowledge that racing is just one, fairly frivolous dimension in something on an utterly dazing scale. If the Maktoums were ever to tighten their racing belts, they would have reached the point where they would sooner save a few dirhams than save face. And that simply isn't going to happen, unless things go so spectacularly wrong that they all end up back in tents in the desert, while the spangling skyline of Dubai rusts.

Not totally impossible, I suppose, if you take the view that the place can only represent one extreme or another: man's final mastery of his environment, or his ultimate Icarus moment. And there is one place that might help a racing man pick between those two scenarios.

Like so many other enterprises in the emirate, the new $1.5 billion racecourse at Meydan will break new ground in its field. Here is one site where the cranes have not stopped working. And the atmosphere there on World Cup night next March will perhaps prove a defining moment, for better or worse, in the Maktoums' indignant protest that there is nothing to worry about.

Of course, the chances are that the present crisis will lead to neither apocalypse nor nirvana. Jones, you fancy, would find something rather distasteful in this sudden queasiness among Turf professionals. After all, it is not as if there is any guarantee that the Maktoum princes will prove anything like as dedicated to racing as their fathers.

Racing should not be asking whether it could manage without the Maktoums, but whether the Maktoums could manage without racing. Do we earn their passion, or take it for granted? If we really do earn it, we will have nothing to worry about. A horse won't run any faster because someone pays for it in dirhams.

There is, of course, one other heavenly insight that would be valued even more. And that is the name of the Tingle Creek winner. As it happens, this field itself represents a crossroads, between past and future. In the absence of Master Minded, Big Zeb is favourite to confirm himself the rising star over two miles, having already run the champion close at Punchestown last spring. But a costly blunder at the last fence that day was by no means the first of his career, and his backers may have to shut their eyes over the railway fences.

Twist Magic, a previous winner, has become too unpredictable and surely Well Chief is better value at the odds, which make ample allowance for notorious fragility. His best form sets a clear standard, but he is being rather taken for granted. And that would surely earn us all another reproof from Mr Jones.

Harchibald will be missed despite cowardice claims

Good riddance. Such, no doubt, was the response of many heartless punters this week on learning that Harchibald had been retired. But the rest of us will surely miss one of the most engaging hurdlers of recent years.

A personal view is that he was maligned by the allegations of cowardice that followed him everywhere after he cruised into contention in the 2005 Smurfit Champion Hurdle, without actually going on to win it. He ended up sandwiched in a finish of necks with two champions, Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca, who were always depicted as paragons of grit and endeavour in contrast. But the reality might be that Harchibald offered himself generously, without being asked, and that he simply had nothing left to give off the bridle.

His trainer, Noel Meade, hopes Aran Concerto proves himself an unequivocal star over fences against just four rivals in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown tomorrow. Meade's stable is in form, but it may pay to go back to the future with In Compliance, the 2006 winner who looked potentially better than ever on his first start for Dessie Hughes at Thurles last month.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Sir Tantallus Hawk (1.40 Wetherby)

Ran up a hat-trick in novice hurdles last season and made a promising resumption over 3m at Ffos Las, going well for a long way; could prove fairly treated back over this trip.

*Next best

Bold Adventure (8.50 Wolverhampton)

Dual winner over course and distance last winter and should be coming back to the boil now, having had a couple of spins since returning from a long break – and offering clear encouragement off a quickening pace last time.

*One to watch

Fathsta (DM Simcock) will surely end his losing run soon, having hit top form for his new stable and unlucky at Kempton the other night.

*Where the money's going

Manyriverstocross is Totesport's 12-1 favourite for the Baring Bingham Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival after relishing a step up in distance at Sandown yesterday.