All the Sheikh’s Horses

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

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.

The sheikh envisioned Meydan (the name is Arabic for “a place where people gather”) as a giant business, entertainment, and residential complex. But, as has been much noted, the agent of globalization proved vulnerable to its vicissitudes. First, plans were scaled back. Then in January 2009, the sheikh claimed that construction teams were moving too slowly, and he canceled their contracts. But within months he hired new builders, and construction started up again.

When I first tried to visit the new track last October, my requests for a tour were turned down. I took a cab to the site and saw why: the only thing upright was the grandstand’s Brobdingnagian facade. I had heard, from a longtime resident, that the theme of construction in the United Arab Emirates is: “Nothing, nothing, nothing, then a miracle.” Meydan proved no exception. The racecourse’s soft opening—for the International Racing Carnival at the end of January—got rave reviews. The jockey Kevin Shea, of South Africa, summed up the sentiment: “The whole facility is simply mind-blowing.” Meydan is a vision out of Arabian Nights via Disney World and Las Vegas, with a mile-long grandstand that will hold 60,000 spectators. Its centerpiece is a futuristic, crescent-shaped steel roof that floats above the stadium seats. Spectators can also watch the races from the grandstand’s rooftop pool, on the world’s longest LED screen—as long as a football field—or from balconies at the adjoining hotel. (If they gaze off into the distance, they will see the stark line where the emerald green of Meydan gives way to the unquenchable desert.) The sheikh met his deadline by the skin of his teeth, just in time for the 2010 Dubai World Cup on March 27.In honor of the new track, the prize money was increased to $10 million.

I wonder whether, after this spectacular World Cup, the true tradition of horse racing in Dubai—the family tradition—will endure. In the days of Nad Al Sheba, at a typical race, men milled around the floodlit track in flowing white dishdashas and head scarves while women in black abayas sat cross-legged on the lawn that embraced the track, poring over racing forms. Islam forbids gambling, of course, but all race attendees received a free “Pick Seven” ballot that they could use to choose their horses—and win up to $15,000 of prize money. Admission to the lawn was free. Between races, children played soccer. Some men unrolled mats on the grass and then settled to their knees, praying southwest toward Mecca before heading for the rail. Then the starting bell would ring, and the magnificent Arabian purebreds would barrel down the track, the thundering of their hooves mixing with the cheers of the crowd.