Author: Duane Fonseca

The character played by Engineer Shareef Al Halawani has been one of the most pivotal in the success of Jebel Ali Racecourse. Al Halawani trod a fine line as he went about bringing to life the vision of HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who was keen on the UAE having a racecourse that would genuinely test the fortitude of man, animal and the partnership between the two.

Guided by the directives of Sheikh Ahmed, Al Halawani and his team not only managed to construct the physical edifice and the legendary undulating track with its steep finish, but turn Jebel Ali Racecourse into an institution. “Our mission has always been to preserve the challenge offered by the track and the hospitality provided at Jebel Ali Racecourse,” said Al Halawani, the man who has been in charge of running the day to day affairs at the racecourse since the primitive days of UAE racing.

Al Halawani’s association with the UAE has continued since 1990, when he rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself wholeheartedly for the cause of racing, a sport he knew virtually little or nothing about. “The essence and mission of Jebel Ali Racecourse was based on two pivotal pillars, the first of which was the vision of HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the patron and founder of the racecourse, to make the track an exciting and challenging one that would provide competitive racing and secondly that no stone was left unturned in a bid to make it hospitable for the crowds that would be visiting.

“The track had to be accommodating for everyone who would go racing and not just the jockeys, trainers and owners, but spectators and sponsors as well. “Sheikh Ahmed had stressed on these two points and these had to be in place before anything else and these were the beacons that have guided us all along, from the first days of racing until today and they will continue to be the guiding lights in the future as well.”

Al Halawani was speaking with Al Adiyat as Jebel Ali Racecourse geared up for its 30th anniversary celebrations that will stretch for a month starting 14 January. And the Egyptian administrator let his hair down as he reminisced about the stages and details of the establishment and development of the track from the very beginning.

Al Halawani was at the forefront of things and witnessed first hand as supervisor, the implementation of the engineering and development aspects of the facilities and the track. “Not many would know this but before it could become Jebel Ali Racecourse, the track was called Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stables,” Al Halawani revealed. “Sheikh Ahmed’s directives and convictions drew the roadmap for us and we are proud and grateful to have contributed to the development of the track and ultimately to the development of horse racing in the country.

“This is a timeless track and the quality of racing here is capable of keeping pace with the requirements of the next 50 years.” The track we see today, grandstand and all, evolved over the years with initial construction starting soon after the need for a venue and its location was picked by Sheikh Ahmed in 1990.

The first challenge faced by the development team concerned the soil. It was light and lifted up easily with minimal breeze. “Sheikh Ahmed came up with the idea of mixing it with oil and turning it into a more cohesive mix,” Al Halawani said. “It was an idea ahead of its time and the mix has proven itself to this day.

It is a surface easier for horses to run on and limits the amount of kickback, limiting injuries and is easy to maintain during and after the season.” After the initial planning, preparation and levelling of the site had been completed in 1991, track development plans were prepared and approved by Sheikh Ahmed, with the first of the projects starting in May 1992.

These included the establishment of a main gallery for VIPs, judges and various officials and other racing personnel. “Now the other important aspect Sheikh Ahmed had stressed upon was making the track attractive for racegoers.

He wanted racing to be for the public and for people to throng the racecourse and enjoy the racing and other activities it offered,” Al Halawani said. “Work was ongoing to give racegoers a good experience not just on the track but off it as well. So many projects started later too like the cafeteria, umbrellas and a back garden with activities to keep kids entertained.

“The car park was also increased in capacity and could now hold nearly 3,000 vehicles.” Cosmetic work to enhance the area surrounding the track was also undertaken over time and a massive landscaping project began in 1994/95. He said: “The cosmetic and expansion works included a massive project to irrigate and cultivate the area surrounding the facilities and overlooking the track.

The lake, fountain and waterfall worked well and still add to the racing in terms of splendour. The complementary work of beautifying the track was completed ahead of the 1995/96 season.” Jebel Ali was an instant hit with the public and earned itself a reputation as a ‘family’ racecourse with its afternoon tea party like atmosphere drawing a wide demographic and nicely showcasing the diversity of the UAE.

All the while Sheikh Ahmed took a keen interest in the affairs of the racecourse and particularly the development of the venue. “He would pore over details of the plans and come up with suggestions and was so open to suggestions. He gave us free rein, and oversaw things like a true gentleman and professional,” Al Halawani said, adding the idea to provide private booths for race sponsors and increase the capacity of the stands came directly from Sheikh Ahmed.

Development work continued after the 1995/96 campaign, with the focus now on increasing the capacity of the stables. The barriers on both sides of the track were also replaced with PVC pipes taking the place of aluminium to make racing safer for horses and jockeys.

Additionally, the capacity of the mosque was also doubled and sustainable agricultural and irrigation facilities were instituted. The Faltaat Tunnel was also eventually constructed to ease the movement of racegoers from the entrance to the grandstands and the mounds skirting the track.

The finish of the turn marrying the back stretch to the long home straight was named ‘Tobougg Corner’ during the early years of the new millennium as a tribute to 2000 European Champion 2yo Colt, Tobougg, one of the most famous racehorses to run in Sheikh Ahmed’s famous yellow and black silks.

Over the years the curve has become a true test of quality horses and Al Halawani confirmed work to make it safer for riding is ongoing. “It’s quite a challenge to have the outer fringes of the bend raised as it has to smoothen out in time to join the straight which is used for sprints, but we’ll get it done during the summer because Sheikh Ahmed will spare no effort in making this one of the best venues for racing,” he said.

“The first of the major renovations to the track were carried out during 2020 despite the Covid-19 pandemic with Emirates Racing Authority officials. It shows the dedication of the staff and the management of the racecourse and everyone involved in UAE racing.

“Expert advice from around the world was sought to improve the racing surface and make it safe for everyone involved. Development is a continuous process and does not stop. You cannot sit back and watch, you have to keep going and over time we can take pride looking back at what has been achieved here at Jebel Ali Racecourse.”

Responding to a question about night racing at the track, Al Halawani said the track could be prepared and equipped to host evening races, but said Sheikh Ahmed has always wanted to make racing at Jebel Ali a family affair and ensure the safety of racegoers.

Finally, Al Halawani saluted the colleagues who have worked on the racecourse project from its very early days. “Ziad Galadari, Ali Khamis Beljafla, Khalifa bin Dasmal, Colonel Muhammad Jamieh, the late Raafat Shehata were the first generation of partners associated with establishing racing here.

These men had the wisdom to help translate the founder’s vision into reality,” he said. “The late editor of Al Adiyat Mohammad Taha played a pivotal role in getting media support for the track in the UAE and abroad. Yasir Mabrouk helped coordinate the regulations for races, Abdel Fattah Ismail worked to enhance the artistic direction of the early racebooks, while Lara Sawaya helped bring in the early sponsorship.

“The media has played a huge role in enhancing the position of the racecourse and Dubai Horse Racing Information Centre, Al Adiyat magazine, Dubai TV and local press have done a fine job over the years. “But the crowd that came here over the years has played one of the most important roles. They have helped make the atmosphere at Jebel Ali the best in the country.”