Even in the relative comfort of an air-conditioned, four-wheel drive equipped with special suspensions, a 160km journey into the Dubai desert is no cakewalk. Making the trek on the back of a four-legged animal, therefore, is not for the faint-hearted. Yet a record 175 riders from 41 countries and their Arabian horses lined up at dawn on Thursday for the World Endurance Championships, a strength-sapping marathon that tests both man and beast to the limit. 'This is a very personal sport,' says Anita Lamsma, a two-time Dutch endurance champion. 'It's about you and your horse facing a tough challenge head-on. Of course, you always aim to win. But the real challenge is just to finish the race.' Dubai was hosting the World Championships for the second time, in no small measure due to the personal enthusiasm of the emirate's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, whose passion for the sport led him to build the state-of-the art International Endurance City in the middle of the desert. Sheikh Mohammed, owner of the famous Godolphin stable that has been so successful in flat racing, is the reigning European Open champion while his son, Sheik Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, won the last World Championships in 2002 in Jerez, Spain, at age 16. The defending champion withdrew on the eve of this week's race due to illness. Nonetheless, royalty was well represented in Dubai. Apart from Sheikh Mohammed and two of his other sons, members of the royal family from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Malaysia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Jordan were also competing. Jordan was represented by Princess Haya bint Hussein, Sheikh Mohammed's latest wife. 'Endurance is the fastest growing sport in the world today. Also among the equestrian fraternity it is growing in popularity,' Sheikh Mohammed said. 'It is only a matter of time before endurance joins the Olympic family.' Unlike the movie Hidalgo, modern endurance races are not a free-for-all. Strict rules have been formalised to ensure the safety of both rider and horse. This week's race was run in six stages, with vet checks at the end of each stage. The cooling-off period between each stage, lasted 30 minutes. There were also water stops along each stage at which team vets could check on the horses. 'It's like a Formula 1 race,' said Ben Horsman, the Dutch team's chief vet. 'We have pit-stops to make sure the horses and riders are in a fit condition to continue. Like pit-stops in Formula 1, we allow horses a short cooling-off period during which they are watered and fed, much like adding fuel and changing tyres.' Formula 1 drivers have considerably more horsepower than riders at the World Endurance Championships. But that is not to say the horses are less reliable than their mechanical counterparts. 'The Arabian horses are bred to handle this kind of race,' said Lamsma. 'It's the oldest breed in the world and they have the stamina for this.' The first World Championships were held in 1986 in Italy and have been staged at two-year intervals since. The winners of the first eight championships were all women and it took Sheikh Ahmed to break that streak in 2002. 'I think women have a better relationship with their horses,' said Lamsma. 'But other than that they don't have any particular advantage over the men. All riders have to carry the minimum 75kg during the race. 'Luck is a crucial factor. Anything can happen during a 160km race. You need to have a certain amount of luck on the day. Maybe in the past, the women have just been luckier.' Americans and Europeans have also dominated in previous World Championships, in both individual and team categories. But many of the teams in Dubai agreed that the balance of power was shifting towards the Gulf states - particularly the United Arab Emirates. The main reason, they say, is Sheikh Mohammed's enthusiasm for the sport. 'He never does anything by halves,' a member of the Italian team said. 'When he makes up his mind that the UAE will be champions, you can bet that they will get there.' Sheikh Mohammed, who is also the UAE's Defence Minister, has poured millions of dollars into buying horses and building training facilities in the oil-rich state. The result has been encouraging. The UAE have been improving steadily over the past few years, winning the team event at the European Open in 1999 and 2001. Sheikh Ahmed's victory at the 2002 World Championships marked the country's biggest success in the individual category. But it was in 2003 that the country really came into prominence when they dominated the European Open in Punchestown, Ireland, filling the top three places in the individual event. Sheikh Mohammed won the gold medal. 'The sweep of the first three places was a great achievement and honour to the country,' Sheikh Mohammed said. 'The victory meant that the UAE riders are among the best in the world.' The 2003 success encouraged Sheikh Mohammed to bring the World Championships back to Dubai this week. But there is more to it than just winning the most prestigious prize in endurance racing: Sheikh Mohammed, who has been riding since age two, believes the Gulf is the spiritual home of the sport. 'It's in our blood. All Arabian horses originated in the Arabian Penninsula,' he said on the eve of this week's race. 'I am happy to welcome them home.'