Surreal time in magical Meydan
Welcome to the diarised account of the days before a race to decide the age-old question: “Just who is the best all-weather track horse in the world?” It’s a question that has kept me and, I’m sure, many other fans awake at night, and started many a bar-room argument. But never fear: the day has arrived for the all-weather world championships - otherwise known as the Dubai World Cup. Let’s recap the week through a series of observational tidbits that hopefully will not get this blogger deported before, not only the running of the US$10 million main event, but also the Seal concert on the infield after the last. After that we can leave.
Tuesday, 26/3. Meydan racetrack. Trackwork.
We love headcase horses with character and one of the first we see on arrival at morning trackwork is the US-trained Golden Shaheen contender Private Zone. This former Panamanian sprinter could have easily have been nicknamed the Panamaniac.
Private Zone’s back story is recounted in an excellent blog by the World Cup’s journalistic standard-setter Pat Cummings. In short, Private Zone behaved like a lunatic of epic proportions in his homeland, seems to have been reformed in the US, and is owned by a group of friends brought together by ex-jockey Rene Douglas.
Douglas was reportedly a brilliant rider who won the 1996 Belmont Stakes, but was left wheelchair-bound after a horrific fall in 2009. He has been an absolute credit to the sport with the time he has given to the media this week - he even had the good humour to wind up a couple of Aussie journos when he said his horse could beat Black Caviar.
Here’s a couple of Private Zone’s greatest hits, complete with over-the-top Spanish commentary.
Watch closely as Private Zone - a 9-1-on favourite - shows blistering pace, then dumps his rider when he takes a U-turn and decides he wants to head up a chute around the cutaway rail
Example two is a doosie. Again Private Zone bursts away, he must lead by seven, but decides he has had enough (0.30s). Jockey A A Rivas’ feet come out of the irons and the field also takes evasive action; but the most amazing part is that Private Zone wins. Probably safe to pour some cold water on that Panama form, but it’s still a great performance. Note that Rivas is understandably reticent pull the stick after the incident.
If Private Zone wins the Golden Shaheen, it will be more than a just a feel good story, in a race that has a few of them.
On the non-feel-good front, World Cup trackwork is about the only place where Meandre (or “Mean Doctor E” as we like to call him), can canter past with his jockey wearing a Chechen flag on his skullcap, sparking this conversation. “Oh, I didn’t know Meandre was owned by notorious Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.”
“Well, he wasn’t until yesterday,” someone replies. “They reckon he paid US$7 million to have a runner in the race.”
First prize is US$5 million, but good on him, as far as feared and ruthless militant leaders of European countries go, Ramzan is OK by me.
Wednesday 27/3. IMAX Theatre, Meydan. World Cup barrier draw
In between being chauffeur-driven in top-of-the-line Range Rovers, drinking copious amounts of coffee and writing detailed and daily analytical accounts of Eagle Regiment’s injured near fore hoof, we found time to catch the barrier draw ceremony for the big race at the racetrack’s IMAX Cinema. It’s interesting to see how different jurisdictions handle barrier draws: the same, and usually awkwardly.
They always seem to be overcomplicated and boring. If we are going to take an hour, let’s at least make it a game of skill, like quoits: owners could aim for a peg representing their desired gate. As the draw went on, and on, we found ourselves at a table up the back scoffing deep-fried mozzarella sticks with a larrikin Irish owner who proves that even among the rich and famous, at the world’s richest single meeting, there’s always room for romance on a racetrack.
Morgan Cahalan, sheep farmer, cancer survivor and racehorse owner from county Tipperary, has just swung by the barrier draw for a look. His horse, Gordon Lord Byron, is actually entered in the Golden Shaheen - up against Private Zone, Frederick Engels and at least two horses whose ownership group has “Pty Ltd” or “Corp” after their names in the racebook. Cahalan and Gordon Lord Byron’s trainer, Tom Hogan, are both Irishmen with the genetically gifted ability to tell tall tales. But neither could ever come up with anything as unlikely as their own rags-to-riches yarn.
A quick re-telling of a story that hasn’t ended yet: Morgan’s daughter Jessica buys Gordon Lord Byron as a weanling at auction. She is the only bidder, for 2,000 pounds, with the intention of “pin-hooking” the colt (the idea of pin hooking being to buy a young horse, develop it and sell it at auction a few months later for more … kind of like the Hong Kong International Sale, but profitable).
Problem is, this pin-hook went wrong - no one wanted Gordon Lord Byron (let’s call him GLB for short) a few months later, he looked fine, but his sire had gone cold and the global financial crisis had struck. GLB was taken off the family farm and sent up the road to Hogan’s stables, showed ability and was set for a first-up strike at Roscommon. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious injury on jumping, a suspected fractured pelvis, and was pulled out of the race. A year on the farm to recuperate and he returned by being beaten a whopping 44 lengths last.
But again he fought back, put a magical 2012 together, the pinnacle being a win in the Group One Prix de la Foret in October - the horse was still for sale all along, but the price tag had been creeping up all along.
Somewhere along the line, someone did acquire a share - and Morgan Cahalan, sheep farmer from County Tipperary, formed a racing partnership and subsequently became great mates with Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, billionaire pharmaceutical manufacturer from Pune, India. Where else but racing could this happen?
Having a horse that is good enough to compete on the Group One circuit can turn into an all-expenses paid jaunt around the globe, and Cahalan is taking advantage. “I’d never ever even been to Paris, and here I was taking a favourite for a Group One there,” he said. “I’ve been to Hong Kong and now here, places I’ve never been before and would never have considered going to unless it was for this horse.”
Cahalan had been suffering with the debilitating effects of multiple myeloma - a bone marrow disease that often causes spinal cord compression and bone pain. Perhaps a touch naively, the question was asked whether the prize money has helped with Cahalan’s treatment: “What do you think?” the quick-as-a-whip reply, said with a twinkle in his eye. GLB’s success has enabled Cahalan to undergo expensive stem cell treatment and he says he is feeling better than he has in years.
Thursday 28/3. Royal Enclosure, Meydan. Press conference
Media were called to a presser where it was claimed a “significant event in China’s racing history” would be announced - it’s probably not an entirely inaccurate claim, what was announced was a race meeting would be held at a racetrack in Chengdu. A couple of enterprising journalists managed to find the said racecourse, or at least what looks like a racecourse using Google Earth, so it is miles ahead of the last hyped-up racecourse development in China, the mythical “horse city” of Tianjin.
Best answer at a press conference award for the week is a tie between Ed Dunlop on why Red Cadeaux was entered over a seemingly too short 2,000m of the DWC: “I know it’s vulgar, but we’re here for the money and - if we can get some - we’re delighted. We will be trying to get as much as we can.” Here here, thanks for the honesty Ed.
And Saeed Humaid Al Tayer, chairman and chief executive of Meydan Group, when asked if the meeting in Chengdu was being held in anticipation that gambling would be legalised soon in China, or would need legal gambling to survive, managed to use the phrase “these extra curricular activities” to describe racing’s relationship with the punt.
We here in the land of billion-dollar betting pools might disagree, but Sheikh Mo’s gang have a point, and a place in racing: it’s a costly exercise having a feature race meeting without any return from gambling, but Dubai Race Club have managed to do it for nearly two decades, so hats off to them.
Let’s look at the diorama that greeted reporters in the Royal Enclosure. Compared to the majesty of Meydan, it is pretty bad - even if it isn’t to scale. It gives the impression that either a) Meydan plan to build the world’s smallest racetrack, or b) the world is about to be taken over by giant translucent humans.
Of course, Sheikh Mo can build better full size racetracks than that in real life,
Meydan has its critics but this writer is not one of them. Imagine if a ridiculously wealthy ruler of an oil-rich country fell in love with racing, built a perfectly proportioned racetrack in the desert, complete with a grandstand that looks like the spaceship from Independence Day has landed on top of it. Well, that’s what happened, but that’s not to say it is perfect.
For instance, the sheikh was probably being a touch ambitious the day he asked workers to build a real life version of one of MC Escher’s “impossible staircase” lithographs at the front gate to the carpark. Seriously, those staircases don’t go anywhere.
Friday 29/3, course proper, Meydan. Final preparations.
So we know the world’s richest race is held on an all-weather surface, but not much is known about the mysterious “Tapeta” that makes up the track, except that it is black, sticky and - not surprisingly - tastes awful. Needless to say that putting Tapeta in your mouth is a stupid thing to do, because it looks like slimy synthetic hairballs.
Luckily we bumped into course manager Javiar Barajas, which meant we could just ask what was in it, rather than eat some and see what happened. Barajas was a great sport as he put up with our questions on Tapeta and turf maintenance for 20 minutes. Check out how impressed he looks with us after we ate some Tapeta.
Carpet, tyre rubber and the rubber jelly coating that surrounds electrical wiring make up the unique part of the inner track.
Barajas is a seriously good operator and the turf course is his baby. And it is just a baby in racecourse years - it’s around four years old - and pretty soon jockeys were walking and running all over it just over 24 hours before the races.
The day before race day is a time for mental preparation for riders, and for many this means “walking the track” and finding the best running, or for those unfamiliar with the course: looking or making mental notes of geographical reference points.
Zac Purton and Tye Angland seemed to take the whole visualisation thing a bit far, getting as close to the actual act of riding a horse as possible - Zac drawing the short straw and playing horse.
So now we just wait for the big night. What can we expect? Well, if you reckon the entertainment in the Beer Garden at Happy Valley is a bit off-putting for the equine athletes, wait until you see (and hear) the fireworks, low flying planes and laser lights before race seven.
Last year the ruckus turned the normally unflappable Ambitious Dragon into a nervous wreck. There are more explosions on World Cup night than in a year at your average open-cut mine.
The Hong Kong-owned Ocean Park will have to come out after the hullaballoo and contest the Dubai Duty Free, aiming to become the first horse named after a theme park to win on World Cup night (we can find three Disneylands to have raced in different parts of the world, and none of them made it to Dubai).
One can only hope Fat Choy Oohlala regains form late in life so he can go to the desert and show the world just how silly a name can be - until then it’s up to trainer Manfred Man Ka-leung to fly the flag.