Meydan fights the doubters

Sheikh Mohammed's new £1.2bn course dogged by financial meltdown in Dubai
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The Independent Online

Long before the rest of the world, the European racing community was already familiar with the character and ambition of the man who is now ruler of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum introduced himself as one who saw horizons as thresholds, not limits; one whose apparently infinite resources seemed merely commensurate with his sense of adventure.

Yet even investment on a scale without precedent in the history of racing represented but one, small dimension of his family's plans for their homeland. And the emirate's wealth has now been stretched to the point where disturbing fissures have begun to appear, if not in their racing and breeding interests, then certainly elsewhere.

Tomorrow represents the start of a critical phase in the Maktoums' 30-year relationship with racing. The breathtaking new racecourse at Meydan will not present a drama equal to its stage until the end of March, when the sport's first $10million (£6million) prize will be contested in the Dubai World Cup. But its claims as the most sumptuous sporting facility on the planet will in the meantime be measured by the Dubai International Carnival, which opens tomorrow evening.

Such claims reflect precisely the immoderation that has now come to be seen as reckless by those financial institutions now giving Dubai a dodgy credit rating. Racing's idea of a return on your investment tends to be rather less fastidious, of course. A lack of dividends – in the shape of big race winners – would be presumed to cost the Maktoums pride, and little more. As such, the symbolism of Meydan becomes obvious.

The Maktoums need to renew, and extend beyond racing, that old faith in their invulnerability. Will Meydan be perceived as some fabulous gesture of belief in a destiny underwritten by their own energy and vision? Or will it become one last gaudy counterpoint to the less flattering stories about the emirate's breathless development?

Sheikh Mohammed himself is exasperated by the doubters. Last month he declared that "it is the tree-bearing fruit that becomes the target of stone throwers". His portentous terms of reference will surely be satisfied by Meydan, which is expected to be filled to its 60,000 capacity tomorrow. The redevelopment of Ascot, which qualified it as a unique flagship of European horseracing, cost £210m. It is thought that the Meydan budget may well approach $2 billion (£1.2bn).

Dubai remains ideally placed as the potential nexus of a maturing international sport. Certainly there will be a far greater geographical spread of competition than at the Breeders' Cup, which bills itself as the World Thoroughbred Championships. The Carnival has drawn horses from all points of the compass, from Brazil to Japan, from Australia to Norway. Moreover the World Cup, previously staged on dirt, will now be contested on a synthetic surface - Tapeta - and has duly lured Gio Ponti, the outstanding colt beaten only by Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

That was at Santa Anita, where there is now distressing talk of the synthetic track being restored to dirt. One conceivable reward for this shocking regression might be a permanent contract to stage the Breeders' Cup. If that were so, the painful but necessary catharsis currently underway in the American sport would be disastrously reversed by its reactionaries. And their inevitable isolation would provide an obvious cue for Meydan.

Either way, Sheikh Mohammed should soon prove a resurgent force in racing and breeding, thanks to massive new investment in young stallions. Only yesterday, meanwhile, his elite Godolphin stable confirmed yet another new recruit, in the runaway Cesarewitch winner, Darley Sun.

Godolphin will have seven runners on the first card at Meydan, but for those to whom a balmy desert night seems remote there remain warming prospects on our own turf. Huntingdon today welcomes the JCB Triumph Hurdle favourite, Mille Chief, as well as Mighty Man, one of the best staying hurdlers around before he tried his hand over fences at Hereford last month. But there was anxiety for Mille Chief's connections last night, when Robert Thornton was detained in hospital following a fall at Leicester.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Miss Vertical (1.40 Musselburgh) Laid solid foundations in bumpers before shaping very well on her hurdling debut at Bangor last month. Set plenty to do before pulling a long way clear of the rest in pursuit of a couple of useful types. Yard in top form.

Next best

Handsome Cross (5.10 Kempton) Back to form in a visor and looked unlucky not to win again at Lingfield last time, hampered at a critical stage before flying late to join a three-way photo. Even if no longer the horse he was, he remains very well handicapped.

One to watch

Samurai Way (Venetia Williams) remains lightly raced over hurdles but his dour finish up the hill when fourth at Towcester on Sunday implied that he could prove well treated in handicaps, once he steps up in distance.

Where the money's going

Rite Of Passage, useful on the Flat and impressive on his hurdling debut at Leopardstown on Sunday, is 7-1 from 10-1 with William Hill for the Neptune Investments Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.