Sheikh Mohammad knows how to throw a party. So if he invites you to come race your horse in Dubai on World Cup day, you're in for the time of your life.
“They roll out the red carpet. Every time we go there, it's just a fabulous experience,” said Bill Casner, whose Well Armed won the 2009 Dubai World Cup at Nad al Sheba.
Casner first visited Dubai in 1999 with owner Art Preston and Victory Gallop. He returned in 2000 with Bet Me Best in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Well Armed ran in the 2006 UAE Derby and in 2008 for his first try at the World Cup. In 2015, Casner's My Johnny Be Good ran in the UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse.
The horses and their connections get prime accommodations, starting with a first-class ticket on Emirates Airlines. The horses are shipped in a custom-equipped Boeing 777 cargo plane. On the plane, they are attended by Emirates' “flying grooms,” who are especially knowledgeable about taking care of horses in the air.
Sheikh Mohammed also picks up the $25,000 tab for each first-class, round-trip ticket on Emirates Airlines for owners, trainers, jockeys, and their spouses.
“It's just unbelievable flying first class on Emirates,” Casner said.
First class passengers get a private suite with a shower spa, a swag bag of organic skin-care products, luxurious moisturizing pajamas (with matching slippers and eye mask) to keep skin hydrated while they sleep in seats that convert to beds. Gourmet dining on bone china, lounges stocked with top-shelf liquors, and a 3000-channel entertainment unit make travel to Dubai exquisitely enjoyable.
In Dubai, the horse's connections are each provided a chauffeur to drive them wherever they wish to go, 24/7. Accommodations are at the Meydan Hotel, a five-star venue attached to the grandstand that features a rooftop infinity pool, a high-tech gym, tennis courts, and a golf course.
“The hotel is right on the racetrack,” Casner said. “You can sit there on your balcony and watch the races. It's pretty awesome.”
Horses get five-star treatment, too.
“They have a backside that's all kind of private. It's really beautiful,” said trainer Art Sherman, who traveled to Dubai twice with California Chrome. “It looks like a hospital ward. And they've got their own people who muck the stalls for you and hold the horses. It was really first class. It was kind of neat to be over there. The stalls are extra big and the place was immaculate where he stayed.”
Casner added, “All your groom basically has to worry about are bandages, tacking up, and attending to the horse. They'll clean the stalls for you when the horse is off to the track. The barns are top notch. They're enclosed and there's good fly control.”
In March, the daytime temperature in Dubai is in the mid-80s and the nights are in the high 60s. Trainers get their horses on the track early in the morning when it is still cool. But the horses stay comfortable even in the desert heat later in the day because the barns are air-conditioned.
“I loved the place myself,” Sherman said. “I thought it was a great place to train a horse. You have plenty of room, and you have places for the horse to roll and a grass area to walk them in. I was very impressed when I was over there.”
Some trainers take their own feed with them so they don't upset their horse's digestion or routine, but good feed, water, and hay are available on site. Nevertheless, when Steve Asmussen took Curlin to Dubai for six weeks before his winning run in the 2008 World Cup, he shipped a load of the horse's favorite hay with him.
The main racetrack at Meydan is at least a mile walk from the barn area. For convenience, a number of training tracks are located close to the backstretch for trainers who don't want to send their horses the distance to the main track.
“By the time the horse walks back from the main track, they pretty much have cooled out,” said Eoin Harty, who trains for Casner. “You just sponge them off, and they're ready to go. That's not a problem.” Then he laughed and added, “It's a problem for the trainer if he has to walk with the horse.”
The Dubai World Cup Carnival is packed with nonstop activities for the horses' connections, among them is the elegant post-position draw.
“The draw is a special event,” Casner said. “When we were there for the World Cup with Well Armed, they had falcons made of silver and gold, and the falcons had hoods on them. You would go up and lift the hood off the falcon, and your post number was under the hood. Then the trainer got to keep the falcon.”
Casner called Sheikh Mohammed “the consummate host” and said the people of Dubai were gracious and hospitable. One of his fondest memories was being in the grandstand at Nad al Sheba when Well Armed won. He and his wife, Susan, wanted a high place to watch the race, so they climbed up to a good spot in the grandstand.
“We were in a sea of white,” he said. “Then we came to find out that we were in the men's section, and they were all dressed in their native Arab garb. They knew we were trying to watch the race, and they said, 'Do you have a horse in this race?' And we said, 'Yes.' So they made two seats available for us. Susan was the only woman sitting in the men's section, and they were very gracious. I think they were hoping for Sheikh Mohammed's horse, but when he didn't win, they were rooting for ours, rooting for Well Armed. And they kept saying, 'Your horse! Your horse!' when he was in front. They were all hooting and hollering.”
Well Armed danced away from the world's fastest horses, as his lead increased to 14 lengths, the largest winning margin in the Dubai World Cup's history.
Casner has watched Dubai grow up from a city on the Arabian Sea to an international destination that boasts a man-made island, the world's largest mall, and the world's tallest building.
“Sheikh Mohammed put that oil money into building Dubai to be an international destination city for business, banking, tourism, medical, real estate—everything,” he said. “Dubai is an amazing city. If your horse is invited to race there, go!”
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