And they're off

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am

In Dubai, almost everybody calls the ruling sheikh the Boss. Not only is this easier than calling him by his full title - Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum - but it sums up the role he has played (with his father) in transforming Dubai's 1960s oil windfall into a sustained economic boom.

In the past decade the Boss has also amassed one of the biggest collections of quality thoroughbreds in the world - a billion-dollar cavalry of more than 3,000 horses. And since racing took off in 1991, horses have become a national hobby. No visit is complete, then, without a trip to the races, which take place on Thursday nights at the Nad Al Sheba track.

Some of the world's most important bloodlines come from the Arabian horse, the tough dish-nosed breed renowned for its stamina and strength. Bedouins have been racing horses for millennia. The prince's idea of a good time is galloping around the desert for eight hours: he's a past winner of the US$270,000 Emirates Endurance Horse race, a 120km slog through Jordan.

As the sun sets over the course I soak up the warm, pillowy air and fancy headdresses: Pakistanis' beehive turbans, sheikhs' long white kaffiyehs, Syrians' sweeping gutras and the distinctive, baggy swirls of cloth piled on the heads of Somalis.

I begin talking with two Egyptian men, a father and son working in Dubai: Riek, a small mountain of soft flesh in a pink satin jalaba; and Omar, young and swarthy in a bright red headscarf. 'Wazzup!' says US-educated Omar, high-fiving me. He's in Dubai working for an oil company. 'Pretty cool, this race thing. We come all the time.' Sitting cross-legged on the warm grass, Omar offers me a puff on his water pipe, the smoke from which, I am surprised to find, tastes unmistakeably like ... bananas. 'We also have cherry, strawberry and bubblegum,' says Omar.

After a couple of tokes I make my way to the private box of the chairman of the Nad Al Sheba Racing Club, where I'm thrilled to discover beer (in Dubai, you can be arrested for drinking in public), and the chairman's wife, Anne Osborne, a mischievous-looking Irish woman with an accent so strong I can barely understand her. Osborne is filling out a Pick Six form. Islam forbids gambling, but the authorities allow this watered-down form, which comes with a prize of US$3,272.

The horses are led out, prancing and skittish. The jockeys, mostly British or Australian, look like luminous little gobstoppers tacked onto the animals' backs. Osborne is telling me about the US$6 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race, to be held at Nad Al Sheba on March 25, when the announcer screams 'ANNnndthey'reoff!'

'Nad Al Sheba isn't your average race meet,' Osborne tells me. At one point I look down and see the crowd on their knees praying towards Mecca, which, being in the same direction as the grandstand, makes it appear for one surreal instant as if several thousand people are bowing before the chairman.

Like race meetings the world over, Nad Al Sheba has winners and losers. I ask Riek and Omar how they have fared. 'Not good,' says Omar. 'I picked six - but they didn't pick me.'

He leans over his hookah, and asks with a consoling smile: 'So, strawberry this time?'