Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Space-age skyscrapers and sheiks: Racing's new world order

updated 11:48 AM EDT, Fri March 29, 2013
Welcome to the Meydan Racecourse, home of the Dubai World Cup. Built in 2010 for a whopping $1 billion, the awe-inspiring complex is the glittering crown in Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's racing empire. But can the big money buy prestige? Welcome to the Meydan Racecourse, home of the Dubai World Cup. Built in 2010 for a whopping $1 billion, the awe-inspiring complex is the glittering crown in Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's racing empire. But can the big money buy prestige?
HIDE CAPTION
The future of racing?
Emerald city
Space-age
Brave new world
Sheik it all about
Money talks
Fashion sheiks
Under the spotlight
Challenging climate
Old world charm
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dubai World Cup, world's richest race, kicks off this weekend
  • More than $27m on offer over 11-day carnival, financed by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
  • Can futuristic race course compete with prestige of historic derbys?
  • Part of Gulf campaign to raise international sporting status

Editor's note: Winning Post is CNN's monthly horse racing show. Click here for program times and latest features.

(CNN) -- Rising from the desert like a space-age skyscraper, there is something equally awe-inspiring and unnerving about the five-star Meydan Hotel.

At night, the sleek glass building glows green and purple, its distinctive crescent roof looming high above the manicured race track below.

It's an opulent and eerily futuristic setting befitting the richest horse race on the planet -- the Dubai World Cup, which kicks off this weekend.

With more than $27 million in prize money on offer over the 11-day carnival, it's little wonder the world's greatest race horses, and their influential entourage, flock every year to the United Arab Emirates.

6 star luxury for Qatar race horses
Life as an expat jockey in Doha
Transforming the desert into a racetrack

But can the grand architectural statements and megabucks compete with the prestige of centuries-old races like the Kentucky and Epsom Derby?

The country's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, seems to think it can, and he's willing to dig into his deep pockets to ensure Dubai is very much on the international horse racing map.

"Prestige has to do with the tradition and culture of the region," said chief executive of the Dubai World Cup Frank Gabriel. "We're 17-years-old, so we're still very young."

"You can have a prestigious race, but you can also have the very best race horses in the world -- which is what we have."

Read: Qatar's six-star hotel...for horses

Gulf's sporting muscle

Launched in 1996, the Dubai World Cup is a relatively new player on the horse racing circuit, and carving out a name as an internationally renowned competition has taken huge investment.

While the U.S. and Europe battle against austerity measures, the Gulf's wealthy horse-mad sheikhs are pumping billions of dollars into boosting the region's racing status.

"Throughout my career, Sheik Mohammed has been the most influential man in the horse racing world," said American Dale Romans, who last year won the award for most outstanding trainer in the U.S.

"He breeds thoroughbreds, he buys them, he competes them -- he does everything. He has very deep pockets in the game and he's willing to spread the wealth around."

Read: Flying high -- From 'cattle-class' to 'horse-class'

It's part of a larger campaign by the oil-rich Gulf to become a premier sporting destination -- and not just for horses.

You don't have that deep sense of tradition here that you have at the Kentucky Derby
Dale Romans, trainer

Qatar will be the first Arab state to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, while investors across the region continue to buy up European football teams.

Among the big players are the Qatar Investment Authority, which owns France's Paris Saint-Germain, and Kuwaiti businessman Fawaz Al Hasawi, who last year bought English club Nottingham Forest.

Cutting-edge course

Back on home turf in the UAE, the $1 billion Meydan Racecourse -- headquarters of the Dubai World Cup -- is the glittering crown in Sheik Mohammed's racing empire.

The grandstand alone is 1.6 kilometers long, while the site boasts a 285-room luxury hotel with roof-top pool, a marina, racing museum, and IMAX theatre.

"It's over-the-top, it's just gorgeous, everything about it is first class," Romans said of the Meydan Hotel where he is staying before competing in Saturday's race.

"It's almost futuristic -- everything is brand new and spotless with shiny glass and metal."

The high-tech course, which champion Italian jockey Frankie Dettori famously described as "like a spaceship from 'Star Wars," is worlds apart from the classic southern charm of the Kentucky Derby's Churchill Downs.

"You can't buy history," said Romans, who won the Dubai Cup in 2005. "You don't have that deep sense of tradition here that you have at the Kentucky Derby."

It's over-the-top, it's just gorgeous, everything about it is first class
Dale Romans, trainer

History of horses

The Middle East's racing circuit may still be forging a name for itself, but the region's passion for horses is centuries old.

The thoroughbred we know today dates back to three Arab horses brought to Britain around the turn of the 17th century.

"The horse is a very significant part of people's lives here," Gabriel said. "People love the sport and they love the culture -- it's about the beauty of the horse."

Eyes on the prize

Dubai's record prize money, field of world-class horses and impressive backdrop will ensure that the eyes of the world are watching this Saturday.

Read: Upping the stakes -- Royal Ascot offers record $7.5m prize

"When I won in 2005 it absolutely changed my career," said Romans. "I went home from Dubai on a different level -- people looked at me differently."

"I had proved I could win on an international stage and I was given better horses to train."

And with $10 million up for grabs in the flagship race, there are still many things money can buy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
The going is always soft and the only permanent building is a toilet block. It's the antithesis to the pomp of Royal Ascot ... welcome to Irish beach racing.
updated 7:07 AM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Each August, over a thousand tents and hundreds of horses converge on Little Big Horn River in Montana for the Crow Fair and Rodeo.
updated 5:57 AM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Show me the money! Hollywood star Tom Cruise was a big hit when he visited the Glorious Goodwood festival.
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Little-known outside the tribes of the Rocky Mountains in the American northwest, Indian Relay is a "magical" horse-racing relay.
updated 9:25 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Now in his 50s, one of the world's most successful jockeys explains why he gave up acting to return to the sport that nearly crippled him.
Winning Post's Francesca Cumani is impressed by the all-round multitasking skills of Ireland's champion trainer Aidan O'Brien.
updated 4:53 AM EDT, Sat June 7, 2014
 An infrared camera was used to create this image.) A horse and exercise rider head to the main track for morning training at Belmont Park on June 4, 2014 in Elmont, New York.
More people have walked on the moon than have won the fabled Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing. California Chrome is seeking to square that score.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
A long history of controversy made him the "enfant terrible" of horse racing, but veteran jockey Kieren Fallon is looking for redemption.
updated 7:31 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Joel Rosario on Animal Kingdom competes to win the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race, at Meydan race track in Dubai on March 30, 2013. The 2011 Kentucky Derby winner (11/2), trained by American Graham Motion and ridden by Rosario, beat home English raider Red Cadeaux by two lengths while another English-trained runner Planteur was third.
With owners ranging from presidents to sheikhs and queens, horse racing is known as the "Sport of Kings" for good reason.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
Buy for the right price and you could make millions. Get it wrong and it could be one of the most expensive mistakes you ever make.
updated 8:07 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
Mine That Bird, the 2009 winner of the Kentucky Derby, is having his incredible story told on the silver screen.
updated 6:35 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen is perhaps best known for helping to resurrect Prince William's relationship with Kate Middleton.
ADVERTISEMENT