29 March 2014

On Saturday evening, the Dubai Racing Club will distribute something approaching R300 million in prize money at the world’s richest race meeting. The “World Cup”, as the occasion has come to be known, grew out of the sands of a barren, unforgiving desert, and in South African terms, has served to showcase the virtues of our racehorses. The World Cup and its associated Carnival, has been especially kind to Summerhill: in terms of “cheques”, we have a perfect three-for-three. Imbongi was the Carnival’s victor ludorum as its biggest money earner in 2010. Mullins Bay fulfilled a childhood dream for us, taking on the biggest owners in the world at the world’s biggest race meeting and cashing up in the Godolphin Mile (Gr.2): Paris Perfect picked up $1million (almost R11 million in today’s money) for his third place in the night’s biggest event, the $10million Dubai World Cup (Gr.1); while Imbongi completed the trifecta in the $5million Dubai Duty Free (Gr.1). Most of the country’s luminaries were trained by the man who has single-handedly propelled the nation to international prominence as a source of top class thoroughbreds, Mike de Kock.

Along the way, De Kock’s charges have taken home as many as three (50%) of the programme’s events, while it’s not uncommon for him to harness at least two (33%) of what’s been on offer. By any standards, this is an extraordinary record, yet, to get our heads around it, we should recall the names of the evening’s heroes going back to 2003: Ipi Tombe, Victory Moon, Lundy’s Liability, Right Approach, Asiatic Boy, Honour Devil, Grand Emporium, Sun Classique, Mahbooba, J.J. The Jet Plane, Masterofhounds,Musir, Soft Falling Rain and Shea Shea - some class!

Heather Morkel, Linda Norval, Greig Muir and Annet Becker, familiar to readers as members of our management team, have all made the pilgrimage, and they can attest to the extraordinary events of the day. The scale of things in Dubai, the opulence, the indulgence, is very apparent wherever you look; some call it “vulgar”; most are mesmerized. Apart from a few Bedouin lodgings, before the discovery of oil in 1966, there was hardly a thing in the way of structural heritage to speak of, yet today, Dubai is a symbol of bottomless pockets and spectacular extravagance, with hardly a sign of its well-publicized financial woes of five years ago.

For those who’ve not been there, and might be wondering what it is like to attend, we’re lucky to have in Dubai, (courtesy of the TDN,) the well-known correspondent, Lucas Marquardt, to refresh us on Dubai’s geography and history.

“If you picture the Arabian peninsula as a snowboot (seriously, look at a map), Dubai sits on a small horn that emerges from the toe, along the western banks of the Persian Gulf. Qatar is due west; Iran is a short distance across the Gulf. Though it was first mentioned in geographical literature almost a thousand years ago, Dubai wasn’t formally established until 1833, when Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al Maktoum, a member of the regional Bani Yas tribe, and 800 of his followers settled on Dubai Creek, a saltwater inlet that curves into the desert for roughly nine miles behind what is today the city of Dubai. Its location made Dubai for a logical port of call for traders, and in the early 20th century it was known for its pearl exports. Just forty-seven years ago, oil was discovered here, and while the reserves weren’t of the scale of the neighbouring Abu Dhabi, they provided a huge influx of capital that has changed the face of the place. In 1971, Dubai joined with Abu Dhabi and five other emirates to form the United Arab Emirates.

Today, Dubai is home to 2.1 million people, though only 17% of those are Emiratis. Indians actually comprise a slight majority (53%), with Pakistanis (13.3%) the only other group in double digits.

The Maktoums are still the ruling family, with Sheikh Mohammed succeeding the late Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Gainsborough Farm) in 2006. Despite a setback from the 2008 financial crisis, Dubai has largely become what Sheikh Mohammed and his father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, dreamed it would: a world-class metropolis that, unlike many of its neighbors in the region, isn’t dependent on oil. In 2011, oil made up just 7% of Dubai’s revenue. (Real estate and construction, by contrast, made up 22.6%.)

Okay, back to the trip at hand. There are five or six major neighborhoods in Dubai (depending on your definition), and I’ve bedded down in Deira for a few days of my trip. Deira, to the north of Dubai Creek, is one of the original neighborhoods of Dubai and its one-time commercial center, but these days I’d liken it to staying in Astoria, Queens if you were to visit NYC.

Plenty to offer, but not necessarily what you think when you think “Dubai”. The buildings are a bit older, some a drab yellow or beige, and rarely do they get above seven or eight stories. On Monday morning, I saw virtually no tourists, and probably 90% of the people on the street were men. The tip of Deira, at the mouth of Dubai Creek, is Al Ras, home to a vast array of souqs (markets) that sell gold, spices and perfumes. One estimate I read put the amount of gold on offer at the Dubai Gold Souk at any given time at 10 tons. Regardless, I decided to forgo the souks and instead caught an abra, or water taxi, across the Creek. The cost was a modest, 4 dirhams, or about a dollar. Abras are a terrific way to travel in Dubai, when possible. The low-slung wooden boats - just step on and go, take about 10 minutes to cross over to Bur Dubai.

 Another neighborhood with a lot of local history. By 8 a.m. the sun had already burned through the morning cool, and so I started along the shaded narrow alleyways of Bur Dubai, looking to get some authentic local street meat (is that just an NYC term?) to start the day. I found a tiny ‘cafeteria’ that held maybe four or five people and told the proprietor, who spoke little English, to give me whatever he wanted, so long as it didn’t contain fish. Five minutes later, he handed over a hamburger. Well played, sir. From there I wandered around Bur Dubai, then doubled back to the Creek, where ferries run to the Dubai Marina. The ride, which takes you out into the Gulf and runs a good 70 minutes, provides a good lay of the land. As you travel southwest. Down the coast, the massive skyscrapers of downtown Dubai spring into view. Dubai has 140 Skyscrapers. Only Hong Kong (295) and New York (231) have more, and the king among Dubais is Burj Khalifa. At 2,717 feet, the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building, and not by a little bit. It’s over 700 feet taller than the second-highest, Shanghai Tower, and with 163 floors, has 61 more floors than the Empire State Building. It resembles a series of tubes and half-tubes springing out from one another, like a clutch of straws of varying lengths. The Ferry brings you under The World, the man-made collection of islands that shaped to resemble Earth’s continents, and then Palm Jumeirah, another made-made grouping of islands, this one shaped like palm tree. Docked on the south side of the latter is Sheikh Mohammed’s private yacht Dubai, a $300 million, 524-foot vessel that is the world’s third-largest.

Back on the mainland, there is a broad expanse of residential housing to the south of downtown Dubai, and then a second group of skyscrapers rises around Dubai Marina, a man-made waterway that is flanked on all sides by an impressive collection of modern architecture that borders on futuristic. It’s safe to say that if breeders got weak at the knees when Sheikh Mohammed came to inspect their yearlings at September, architects and building contractors get downright giggly when he’s involved in one of their projects. My personal favourite was the Cayan Tower, an 80-story behemoth that twists a full 90 degrees. Walkways line both sides of the marina. This is the Dubai you imagine. Sleek glass and steel buildings, high-end shops and restaurants, and a well-heeled international crowd sipping cappuccinos in fashionable cafes. Later, back in Deira, I felt like I’d at least gotten a rough outline of what’s where, and tomorrow, after some rest, we head to the track.”