Sheikh's vision pays dividends

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 12:00am

Regardless of whether or not your passion is horse racing, it's impossible to come away from Dubai without feeling in awe of the leader and visionary that is General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, eldest brother of the UAE's ruling family.

From humble beginnings in the horse business in the early 1980s, he has created a thoroughbred empire that stands alone, especially his tradition-defying, world-leading stable Godolphin. But Sheikh Mohammed is also running a country, not just a thoroughbred operation.

His keen senses and uncanny ability to anticipate trends have seen him develop the United Arab Emirates into a thriving first-world city, the Middle East counterpart to Hong Kong and Singapore. Although it was oil that originally gave Dubai its wealth, Sheikh Mohammed has shaped Dubai for a future that is independent of what the Texans liked to call black gold. Any number of international businesses now call Dubai home, with tourism also a major contributor to a buoyant GDP, of which oil is now apparently a mere five per cent factor.

In his spare time, Sheikh Mohammed leads up the world's most visible racing stable, popularly known (and feared) as the boys in blue.

Under the training of Saeed bin Suroor and the management of Simon Crisford, Godolphin has won 101 Group One races around the world and changed the way international racing is perceived. The Dubai World Cup is yet another of Sheikh Mohammed's 'babies'. The world's richest horse race had its birth in 1996 and could not have been given a better christening, with America's all-conquering Horse of the Year, Cigar, its inaugural winner.

Cigar was given an awful fright that year by the relatively unheralded galloper called Soul Of The Matter, trained by Richard Mandella of California. Mandella has been back, several times since, and been repeatedly placed in the great race until breaking through this year with Pleasantly Perfect.

The Dubai World Cup has emerged as one of the great days of racing in the world, and undoubtedly the richest. And every year, the World Cup meeting itself is becoming more of a feature event, with the entire city of Dubai gathering to support this peak sporting occasion.

The house-full signs went up everywhere in Dubai last weekend and the city was fairly bouncing. Those who came from all corners of the globe received a fitting reward, as they witnessed one of the great thoroughbred contests of the modern era - of any era - in the stretch-long duel between Medaglia d'Oro and Pleasantly Perfect.

The chairman of the Dubai World Cup committee, Ali Saeed Bilhab, and all his team can reflect this week on a job well done. And like all successful big-event organisers, you can bet they are already looking at how they can better it in 2005.