Author: Howard Wright

EVEN before the momentous decision taken by the Emirates Racing Authority on Sunday afternoon to call a premature halt to the 2019-20 season, including this week’s Dubai World Cup extravaganza at Meydan, it would have been a race meeting with a difference. There would have been the same programme of nine races, making up the richest single day of racing in the international calendar; much the same star astudded collection of horses from many jurisdictions, and a fair representation of the best jockeys in the world. But, still, it would have been different. The usual queue of up to 60,000 people expected to converge on Meydan would have dried up to a trickle of just a few hundred, if that, and everyone would have passed through scanners.

Not the usual airport style machines set up for the day to prevent the wrong types of material being brought into the racecourse, but thermal scanners, monitored closely by medical staff from the Dubai Health Authority, with Dubai Police staff looking on. This was serious stuff, because the reason behind the planned introduction of extreme measures is serious. The world has never before seen anything like Covid-19, the new strain of coronavirus that has devastated nations from east to west, north to south. Inevitably, and unavoidably, its spread had impacted arrangements for the Dubai World Cup meeting, to the point the fixture would effectively have been held behind closed doors.

No paying spectators, just horse connections, racing officials, accredited media and sponsors who would have taken part in the live action. Even some of those people who normally fell into the eligible categories would not have been there, due to stringent conditions already imposed by governments or impending uncertainty about travel from and back to their own countries. I was due to have come into the latter bracket, so television coverage would have guided me through the unavoidable circumstance of being marooned in the UK. Then, with intended runners from overseas safely bedded down in the international barns, the decision was made, in the words of Meydan Group chairman Saeed Al Tayer, “due to the ongoing global health implications of the coronavirus and precautionary measures being implemented by the UAE government.”

Noone is to blame, least of all the organisers at Meydan, the Dubai Racing Club and the Emirates Racing Authority, who made the difficult call, having carried on behind closed doors since Super Saturday, 7 March. Adhering to guidelines from the UAE government meant it was no longer possible to keep the show on the road. There are shades of 1997 in the decision. Times and personnel have changed, but the same initial determination applied as when what looked like a passing shower at lunchtime turned into the equivalent of a desert monsoon through the afternoon. The first four races were called off, then the Dubai Duty Free followed, and finally Sheikh Mohammed made his famous gesture of drawing an index finger across his throat to signal the Dubai World Cup was also being lost. On that occasion, though, all was not lost.

This was the second year of the World Cup, and an emergency meeting with trainers and officials determined that the meeting should be staged the following Thursday. As many people as possible, including international media, stayed on at the organisers’ expense, and while the drying out treatment continued, horses and riders carried on exercising to stay at their peak. 

Only one horse, the French trained Helissio, was withdrawn from the World Cup and, fittingly, the prize went to Singspiel, trained by Sir Michael Stoute for Sheikh Mohammed. Twenty three years later, Stoute was due to be represented by Sheikh Hamdan’s Mustashry in the Dubai Turf, and the Singspiel colours of maroon and white, which have been transferred to Sheikha Al Jalila, Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter, were to have been carried by Glorious Journey in the Al Quoz Sprint. Looking back at the personalities involved in the 1997 Dubai World Cup is not just an exercise in nostalgia but a reassurance in resilience. As well as Stoute, other trainers involved then who were due to have runners on this year’s card are Richard Mandella, Saeed bin Suroor, John Gosden and Mark Johnston. Not surprisingly, still practising jockeys in action in 1997 are thin on the ground.

Jerry Bailey, who rode Singspiel, and Jason Weaver, who was brought down on Bijou D’Inde when Hokuto Vega fell on the home turn, would have been on punditry duties for US and UK television channels respectively, leaving Frankie Dettori as the sole survivor from the jockeys’ ranks that day who were slated to be in action at Meydan. Dettori remains the most successful rider at the meeting, with 19 wins from 115 mounts, for a strike rate of 16.5%. Only Ryan Moore comes anywhere near for the number of rides, with 75 to his name, but a winning score of just six, for a strike rate of half Dettori’s. I shall miss the opportunity for Dettori, with an improved book of rides as he stepped in for stay at home US jockeys, to win his first race at the meeting since African Story took the Godolphin Mile in 2012, or to land his first World Cup success since Electrocutionist in 2006.

That’s not all I’ll miss. I shall miss seeing Aidan O’Brien’s string as they file out for early morning exercise at Meydan. Decked out in identical maroon riding gear, the team sticks to a well established pattern with military precision, first walking up the chute from the international quarantine stables, trotting clockwise past the cavernous stands before turning to canter the ‘right way’ round. That master trainer O’Brien is rarely present until very late in the process never makes a difference to the fascination. Yet his team itself would have been missing this year in any case, an early victim of Covid-19 repercussions. Make a note of his intentions, though, since as was pointed out here a year ago, the names inked in on the DWC card are as important for the promise they bear for the future as the results on the night.

Put these on your list of horses to follow in 2020: Anthony Van Dyck, Magic Wand, Circus Maximus, Kew Gardens, Sergei Prokofiev, Fleeting, Mount Everest and New World Tapestry. I’ll miss seeing Almond Eye again. Her victory in last year’s Dubai Turf put the Japanese back in winning mode in a race their runners have now taken four times in the last six years, and she would have had a favourite’s chance to become the first dual winner. Almond Eye was due to head a massive team from Japan, who, with the number of UK runners falling year on year, had become the biggest numerical threat to the combined Godolphin and UAE squad. In that respect, therefore, I’ll miss seeing the hordes of Japanese media, said to have numbered at least 100 in accreditations this year, who accompany their representatives with boundless enthusiasm and unlimited curiosity.

I’ll miss what would have been Allan Smith’s first runner at the meeting since Khoutoubia in 2004, when he was a local trainer and since when he has been champion every season in Bahrain. He was due to return to the UAE with a live chance of winning the Al Quoz Sprint with Dark Power, bought out of Clive Cox’s yard in Britain and already improved by at least a stone based on last month’s success over Godolphin’s Mubtasim, who was scheduled to reoppose, in Saudi Arabia. There are other aspects I shall miss, including the chance to see War Story and Dettori, his late jockey booking, attempting to make Elizabeth Dobles the first female trainer to lift the World Cup trophy. Above all, though, I’ll miss the whole atmosphere of the event, from the horses and jockeys to the mix of hospitality and international visitors, not forgetting the eager anticipation of punters laying out copies of Al Adiyat in the grandstand as they attempt to unlock the Pick 6 mystery. All those aspects must wait. Maintaining a healthy environment is the top priority. Stay safe, and I’ll see you next year.

World Cup 2020 – a case of remembering absent friends