Travel April 2010

All the Sheikh’s Horses

By the skin of his teeth, Dubai’s ruler opens the world’s most ambitious—and outrageous—racetrack.
Teo A. Khing Design Consultants

At Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s horse stables, the stalls are crisply air-conditioned; the desert’s sunlight streams through skylights; the ceilings are 30 feet high. The floors are covered in pinewood chips, for bedding. Staff members are constantly cleaning the quarters and spritzing the occupants. Out back, horses might be working out in their pool, or on a nine-furlong track. Indeed, Godolphin horses live like equine sheikhs. They summer in Newmarket, England, and make their winter quarters here, in Dubai.

Nowhere else is the idea of the horse—in its lithe and powerful form—more magical than in the Middle East. According to Bedouin legend, “Allah took a handful of southerly wind, blew his breath over it, and created the horse.” Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, who has ridden since he was a child, explains on his Web site, “A love for horses runs in my blood. Don’t forget that horses have been bred for centuries by Arabic tribes … They symbolize our history.” He founded his stables in 1992, calling them Godolphin, after one of the three Middle Eastern stallions from which all modern thoroughbreds are said to be descended.

Sheikh Mohammed, who is 60, runs at the head of a small international pack of high-stakes horse breeders. He is also a formidable competitor in “endurance riding,” races that can stretch across 100 miles in a day. He fell in love with the woman who would become his “junior” wife, Princess Haya, in 2002, when both were competing in the World Equestrian Games. (Princess Haya’s father—Jordan’s late King Hussein—called her “The Trucker” because she has a license to haul her own horses.) To date, Godolphin horses have won more than 150 major trophies in 12 countries. But the sheikh’s most impressive equestrian achievement is as an impresario. He has changed the face of horse racing.

Before the sheikh intervened, horse racing was really a local sport. For the most part, Americans raced in America, Europeans in Europe. But in 1996, in a gambit befitting the vaulting ambition of this tiny emirate of brokers and traders, he used the first Dubai World Cup to help globalize the sport. Holding out a purse of $4 million, the world’s richest horse race drew competitors from around the planet. In a neck-and-neck sprint to the finish, the great American thoroughbred Cigar beat the singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach’s Soul of the Matter. Perhaps the sheikh’s sweetest victory came at the 2000 Dubai World Cup, when his own beloved stallion, Dubai Millennium, flew down the track to a staggering six-length triumph, keeping the purse—and the honor—at home.

In 2007, the sheikh raised the stakes again. He astounded fans by announcing that he would build Meydan City, a colossal 67 million-square-foot “equestrian city” to replace his famous Nad Al Sheba track and ensure that his race would continue to attract the world’s best jockeys and horses. And he said he would do it in just three years. To make room for the new track, the sheikh obliterated Nad Al Sheba.

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Robin Cherry is the author of Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping.

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