The boys in blue belonging to the world-famous Godolphin stable are spearheading Dubai's bid to become the world hub of horse racing, David Williams saddles up to take a look at the emirate's racing scene and speaks to a former stable-hand who is now one of the most important names in the sport
Just a short chat with Les Benton makes you realise he is a man of his word. The newly-appointed chairman of the Emirates Racing Association has landed in Dubai with a mission and when he says the UAE will be the world's hub for horse racing in the new Millennium, you certainly believe him.
British born and raised, Benton speaks clearly with a strong Australian accent having spent his adult life as a key figure in horse racing Down Under. After 32 years scaling his way to the top of the Victoria Racing Club, hosts of the prestigious Melbourne Cup, Benton, at 52, decided it was time for a change and a fresh challenge and has been given the job of taking horse racing in the UAE forward... the country can be rest assured that the future is in safe hands.
"A great job has been done in a short space of time here and it's my task to build on that excellent platform," said Benton, relaxing back into his office chair, clearly relishing the prospect of being able to talk about something he loves with a passion.
"Horse racing is becoming as synonymous to Dubai as oil or commerce thanks to the work and vision of the Maktoum family. I am going to find my feet for 12 months, and then I will be able to implement a longer term plan over two to five years. There are some very exciting times ahead for horse racing in the UAE as it gets recognised globally more and more.
"This season we are introducing a number of new initiatives. The beautification of the race courses is one important feature, and then there's administration changes, improvements to the race programmes, training programmes and generally offering more all-round assistance for the benefit of racing. For instance, this season we are producing a comprehensive book featuring every horse that raced here last year along with their results and statistics. We are also, for the first time, presenting Dhs100 every race to the groom of the best turned out horse. "It's the small things we want to address first before going into the big ones. I am here also to discuss and advise and the early feedback I'm getting is very encouraging."
It is fair to say that the UAE has had to do a lot of catching up with the decades of racing tradition enjoyed by other countries, but the UAE has now overtaken many countries and is setting the standards for others to follow.
The Godolphin injection into the racing world was a breath of fresh air desperately needed by a sport suffering from a lack of funds and decaying race tracks world-wide.
Set up in 1992 by Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and UAE Minister of Defence, the Godolphin operation has shot to the forefront, enjoying success globally with admirable regularity.
But all this success and recognition is a long way from the humble, and somewhat questioned, beginnings of the empire. Ensuring horses enjoy year-round sun was certainly not a fresh idea, but the thought of mass manoeuvring of dozens ÷ and now hundreds ÷ of horses from various parts of the world back to the UAE for winter raised many eyebrows.
But, as this summer's track record has shown, what began as a small experiment seven years, ago has blossomed into a multi-million dollar success story, and an industry that has brought the country's name to the attention of millions of race-goers who have become fanatical admirers of the Maktoums.
Since Balanchine became its first classic winner back in 1994 by clinching the Epsom Oaks and Irish Derby, there has been no looking back for the operation.
Well over 100 Godolphin horses have raced in Europe this summer and most of those are now back in Dubai for winter training and competition in the professional racing circuit in the UAE, which coincidentally started in the same year as Godolphin.
Last year, over 600 registered thoroughbreds wintered here and that list will undoubtedly continue to expand. All the hype surrounding the Maktoum horses in Europe this year bodes well for a winter of exceptional quality racing here in the emirates.
With meetings planned at Nadd Al Sheba, Jebel Ali and Abu Dhabi, never before has a season been anticipated so much. Such is the rapid growth, it won't be long before the UAE will be mentioned in the same breath as the UK, USA, Hong Kong and Australia as one of the world's great racing nations.
"It's unfair now to compare the UAE racing scene to countries like the UK, but it is getting there and is now an attractive proposition for overseas competitors, spectators and sponsors," said Benton. In the space of five years, the racing industry here has mushroomed into one of the most lucrative in the world and the icing on the cake comes in March with the staging of the Dubai World Cup, carrying the richest purse of US$6 million. That March 25 race bonanza will also be the richest in the world with a total purse of some staggering US$12 million up for grabs on the day. If the racing world is excited now, what will it be like when the event takes place in five months?
"It's an important race with regards to putting the UAE on the global map," admits Benton, who hopes it will always be the world's richest race despite other races around the world upping their stakes too. "People talk about the Dubai World Cup all around the world, bringing tremendous exposure to the city. It is my aim to establish the UAE globally as a centre of racing excellence, managed with efficiency and integrity, so the rest of the world can see we are the leaders. This race, and the other races on the World Cup card, are an important aspect of gaining that respect and recognition."
In the previous four runnings of the Dubai World Cup, Benton believes the best horse in the world at that time has always won, adding that "this is crucial for the event's success".
Benton has also been a key figure in the implementation of the Emirates World Series, horse racing's equivalent of the Formula One championship.
"The aim of the Emirates World Series is to establish horse racing globally like Formula One and bring it into the world arena," said Benton. "To have this series running through a number of countries is a wonderful achievement and I am proud to be a part of the Emirates World Series as I know it will go from strength to strength.
"I believe it is crucial to keep these races at the forefront of the media, and ensure glamorous media attention. It is a brilliant concept and will get bigger."
The Emirates World Series, which started with the Dubai World Cup in March this year, encompasses several rounds in different countries with the eventual winner being the one that has picked up the most points throughout. Godolphin's horses are currently battling it out with the best from the USA and it is a tussle that will last the entire series. "Godolphin is the premier racing stable in the world without a shadow of doubt, and it would be fitting for one of its horses to win the first series," states Benton.
Sheikh Mohammed has extended a helping hand to British trainers this season by offering them Dubai's plethora of facilities to winter their horses. There have been some takers and Benton believes many more will choose the warmth of the Arabian climate for winter rather than the dull British weather.
"This is all part of a much larger plan for the future," he said. "It is not only beneficial to the horses, but it is also cost effective. Racing can only improve from Sheikh Mohammed's generous offer." Two years ago, Sheikh Mohammed threatened to pull out of British racing unless it got its act together. It sent shudders through the hierarchy and suddenly made them realise just how crucial a part the Maktoums play.
"They are crucial to British horse racing. Without the Maktoums, the racing world would be a much poorer place, and I don't just mean financially. They are extremely popular and well-liked wherever they go. The vision of Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers has taken Dubai to be recognised as a centre of tourism, commerce and business, and horse racing is a part of that."
With the season recently launched, racing at grassroots in the UAE has never been stronger. Meetings are held more regularly than ever at more venues, and the crowds are getting bigger.
Events are held for all types of horses, from maidens to open handicaps and the quality of horse is as good as any you would find anywhere in the world. Some achievement considering the professional circuit only started in 1992, leading me to ask the question: "How far can racing go in the UAE?"
"The UAE has the potential to become one of the world's premier racing countries. It has already proved to the world that its horses are among the best, and the next task is to show the world that its racing circuit can also match anywhere in the world."
Each racetrack in the UAE is spectator friendly with superb modern facilities that are the envy of more established horse racing countries. It does not cost anything to watch racing at Nadd Al Sheba and there is also the opportunity to win large cash prizes in its unique accumulator.
Gambling is strictly illegal in the UAE, but race-goers can participate in the pick-six. This quite simply involves selecting who you think will be the six winners on the night and, if successful, there is a share of a prize pot to collect. There are also prizes for predicting 1-2-3 finishes to ensure the excitement lasts even if the first race is lost. Overall, thanks to the drive of the Maktoum family, horse racing in the UAE is a booming sport and is playing its part in putting the country on the world map. And with Benton's tight grip on the reins, there seems few fences to jump on the way to achieving greatness in the year 2000 and beyond.