UBAI, United Arab Emirates — The world's richest horse race ended 90 minutes ago, with 2006 Breeder's Cup champ Invasor charging down the stretch to win the $6 million Dubai World Cup. Now, as the clock edges past 11 p.m. and the gates close at Nad Al Sheba racetrack, the world's richest taxi line begins.
In addition to paying out $21.2 million for seven races, the World Cup is the social event of the season in Dubai, where the rich and beautiful go to see and be seen. With a prize of $5,000 and a trip to Thailand awarded to the best-dressed woman, it's where the Daily Racing Form meets Oscar night's red carpet. Hundreds of women from all over the world — Dubai, Lebanon, England, Turkey, Ukraine, Asia, America — have been on parade outside the track all afternoon and evening, providing new definition to the term "racing silks." Elegant, formfitting dresses display beautifully tanned legs and accentuate every curve of the body. Necklines plunge low to reveal lace-trimmed satin bras. Wide-brimmed hats are outrageously topped with enough exotic feathers, flowers and ribbons to shame an Ice Capades skater. The men, meanwhile, sport pin-striped tuxedos and morning coats, suits, sport coats, kilts and top hats as they suck on water pipes called hookahs and mix among Arabs in flowing white robes.
Many of the non-Muslim expats are now also drunk … or, at least, nicely buzzed. This is the prophet Muhammad's birthday, and out of respect, the sale of alcohol has been banned throughout the country for most of the day. But not here at Nad Al Sheba. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, rules Dubai, and horses are his passion, the World Cup his baby. So race day goes on as usual, and bartenders have been serving $120-$500 bottles of champagne at the Bubble Lounge and more reasonably priced cups of Guinness for $10 in the Irish Village since early afternoon.
And now these beautiful people need a ride home.
The line for taxis is two to six people thick and snakes around the parking lot for at least half a furlong. That would be bad enough, but the taxis are appearing, at most, two or three a minute. The people at the end of the line are going to be here a very, very long time.
Fortunately, I have hitched a seat on the van ferrying the ABC television crew back to its hotel. And as we crawl out of the parking lot, desperate men and women race up to the van, tripping in high heels and waving at the windows, begging us to let them on. It's like the last chopper out of Saigon, only with more feathers and bigger cup sizes.
There is no room available, not that anyone is in the mood to let anyone else on, anyway. "Don't stop! Keep going!" we howl. "Don't look them in the eyes!!!" someone shouts at the driver.
We pull out of the parking lot and onto the main road leading back to the city center. There is a sleek convertible ahead of us, with a man and a woman in the front seat and another man squeezed into the backseat.
Wait. "There's another woman in the backseat," someone yells from the front of the van. "If you know what I mean."
I can't see from my seat, but I think I get the picture. And all this is taking place, mind you, in a country where there's no betting on horse races and where public intoxication or excessive public affection can earn you a jail sentence; a country bordering Saudi Arabia, 100 miles across the Persian Gulf from Iran and down the Gulf from Iraq.
A country that wants to host the Olympics.
So the next time you see a report about suicide bombers blowing up markets in Iraq, or Israel shelling Lebanon, or Iran's president talking about the destruction of Israel, or Dick Cheney issuing warnings from the deck of an aircraft carrier, or any other news from the many violent clashes over religion, culture, geography or oil in this part of the world, you should bear this in mind: Part of this same neighborhood considers sports more important to its future than oil. Far from damning and shunning the West, Dubai would very much like you to visit and watch a horse race, golf 18 holes, play some tennis or even ski. Rather than fight over fundamentalist Muslim, Christian or Jewish beliefs, Dubai is partly betting its future on the new world religion of sports.
That might not provide much reassurance or hope amid the turmoil, but at least it's something.
This is where sports fit into the overall vision for Dubai as seen by Sheikh Mohammed.
According to Rashid Al Kamali of the Dubai Sports Council, "the goal is to use sport as a platform to attract global exposure for Dubai." It already has. Television cameras bring Dubai into living rooms around the world via the annual Desert Classic golf tournament (you probably saw Tiger Woods teeing off against the city skyline in February), the Dubai Duty Free tennis tournament (maybe you saw Andre Agassi and Roger Federer playing on the helipad atop the 1,000-foot high Burj Al Arab hotel) and, of course, the World Cup horse race.
And that's just the beginning.
Construction of the first Tiger Woods golf course — Al Ruwaya — is under way here, with plans including 300 luxury villas, 20 mansions, an 80-room boutique hotel and a shopping area. Cricket is moving its ICC world headquarters here. Manchester United will open a soccer academy here. Sheikh Mohammed and the royal family just announced plans for Meydan, a 67-million-square-foot horse track and development with the hope of one day landing the Breeder's Cup. Rising from the sands southwest of Dubai already is Dubai Sports City, a $3.5 billion, 50-million-square-foot housing, recreation and entertainment development that will one day be home to 65,000 sports fans. "This will give you a chance to live sports," says Dubai Sports City chief executive U. Balasubramaniam.
Live it? The only thing missing from the Dubai Sports City blueprint is a "SportsCenter" studio. The Ernie Els golf course that winds among the luxury villas, townhomes, hotels and a shopping mall will open in the fall. ManU's soccer academy will compete for students with a Butch Harmon golf school and a David Lloyd Tennis Academy. There will be a cricket stadium, a 10,000-seat tennis and ice hockey arena (yes, ice hockey) and a 60,000-seat main stadium. Naturally, you'll have to pay to use or attend those facilities, but you will avoid the bane of all fans — postgame traffic.
"That shows the difference in the vision here," Balasubramaniam says. "We thought we'd go ahead with a 30,000-, 35,000-seat stadium. His Highness said: 'What are you talking about? Thirty thousand is nothing. Sixty thousand is what we need.' "
Any day, I expect the Florida Marlins to move here.
"Sport is a main part of the attractions to Dubai," says Hamad bin Mejren, manager of Dubai Inward Missions, the commerce and marketing arm of the Dubai government. "You have travelers for different kinds of reasons, and one of these reasons is sports. I go to the football World Cup, I go to the Olympics. That's why I travel. Sometimes we have major sports attractions here and it's not just about the people who come here, it's the publicity we get. Sports are a major part of Dubai. We are called the sporting capital of the Middle East."
The walls of bin Mejren's office are decorated with soccer photos and memorabilia. He played soccer at Pomona College in the late '80s and early '90s and is such a fan of the sport that he delayed his graduation to 1995 so he could be in the United States for the 1994 World Cup.
"The ultimate goals are hosting the World Cup or the Olympics," he says. "We hope we can do that in the future, but we don't expect to have that until 10 or 15 years in the future, at least. But I'm sure Dubai or the Emirates will be able to handle such events."
I assume bin Mejren means the Summer Olympics, but perhaps he's talking about the Winter Games. You never know with Dubai.
After all, the mercury might routinely climb halfway to the boiling point in summer, but Ski Dubai, a snow park inside the vast Mall of the Emirates, is open year round. It has ice sculptures, snowmen and a short bobsled run. There is even the St. Moritz restaurant modeled after a Swiss ski lodge, complete with a flame roaring in a stone fireplace where men in snow-white robes and women in black abayas sit close by, dipping forks into a fondue pot. For an equally ludicrous contradiction to a ski slope in the Arabian desert, Minnesota's Mall of America would have to have a midwinter sand dune park with camels and oil wells.
I huddle in ski pants, ski jacket and gloves then push myself down a snowy slope for my first ski lesson. As skiers and snowboarders whiz by, I slowly gain speed, only to soon lose balance and fall back on my tail. One ski off, one ski on, I flop around in the cold snow trying to get up, struggling very much like Randy in "A Christmas Story." My Moroccan instructor skis over, but he does not help me up.
"You know, it's your fault," he says, his voice failing to hide his disgust. "You must always lean forward. Not backward. Always forward."
Go forward. It's not just a ski lesson, it's modern Dubai in a nutshell. The world's richest horse race, the world's tallest building, artificial islands, Tiger's first golf course, Halliburton's relocation, an Olympic bid, robot camel jockeys (more on those later) … it's all just a matter of imagination, determination and engineering.
Well, that plus low-paid foreign workers, zero taxes and air conditioning.
There is a 90-meter swimming pool. A private garden. Air conditioning. Skylights. Thirty-foot ceilings. Servants constantly cleaning the quarters and spritzing the occupants.
A scene at the Burj Al-Arab, Dubai's iconic $2,000-a-night "seven-star" hotel? No. The Nad Al Sheba and Zabeel stables .
"It's un-bee-lievable," Peter Vitulli, the New Yorker who co-owns the thoroughbred Nightmare Affair, says of the facilities at Nad Al Sheba. "You can't smell a horse in the shed rows. You can't smell anything. If someone blindfolded you and you walked through the shed row, you wouldn't know what it was. There aren't even flies. The barn door opening has these tall screens that keep the flies out. Each horse has a little spray bottle and they get sprayed four times a day with a repellent. It's great to see the horses treated like that. They're not bothered by anything. The stalls are 15-by-15 with 30-foot ceilings. And a skylight. And air conditioning. They have air conditioning! The floors are painted. The walls are white.
"Trust me when I tell you, I've stayed in places that aren't as nice as the stalls."
Horse racing is the passion of Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Sheikh Hamdan. They learned horsemanship as young boys in the 1950s — Mohammed excelled as an endurance rider — and they are major players in the sport. In 1994 Mohammed started Godolphin Stables, named for one of the three Arabian horses from which modern thoroughbreds descend, and its horses have won more than 130 Group 1 races. Godolphin has training facilities all over the world, including 4,000 acres in Kentucky. Sheikh Mohammed, who recently bought the stud rights to Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, reportedly has spent $1.5 billion on horses.
"You're working with really high-quality people," says Kieran McLaughlin, the trainer for Invasor. "They don't get into second-guessing. They have a very good idea of what's going on. They understand bad news is part of the sport as well as good news."
"A love for horses runs in my blood," Sheikh Mohammed wrote for his Web site. "Don't forget that horses have been bred for centuries by Arabic tribes, they were used for hunting and fighting and they symbolize our history. Horse riding is more than merely sitting on a horse's back. It is nobility and chivalry."
Sheikh Mohammed's image — his finely trimmed black beard, piercing dark eyes and traditional Arab headscarf — is everywhere in Dubai, from a gigantic mural covering the side of at least one building to windshield sunshades protecting cars from the sun's intense rays. The third of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum's four sons, Sheikh Mohammed was born in 1949 when Dubai was a mere trading village, known for its pearl diving industry … if it was known for anything at all. That changed after Dubai gained its independence from Great Britain part of the UAE in the early '70s. The discovery of oil made the royal family rich, but Al Maktoum saw beyond the oil and laid the foundation for turning Dubai into a modern city-state. He created an inviting economic climate that would attract and grow business, a strategy Mohammed has expanded.
Dubai is Muslim, but its liberal laws allow the sale of alcohol in hotels, women are free to dress in Western (though modest) clothing and English is more widely spoken than Arabic. It is an oasis of Western life in a very turbulent region. "In Dubai, nobody talks about politics," says Abdullah bin Suwaidan, deputy manager of Inward Missions. "Everybody talks about money."
Cambridge-educated and a writer of poetry, Sheikh Mohammed recently pledged $10 billion to set up an educational foundation in the Middle East. He is known informally in Dubai as Sheikh Mo or The Boss. He is among the very richest men in the world, listed by one source at No. 5.
Franko Vatterott says he got to know Mohammed when the sheikh funded the elite Tri-Dubai triathlon team. With top triathletes from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Germany, the Tri-Dubai team won several races, including the Ironman, raised money for charity and brought exposure to the emirate. But apparently, the covers of triathlon magazines were not exposure enough. When Mohammed took over as Dubai's ruler last year, Vatterott says the security around him rose exponentially and his contact with the sheikh was completely cut off, as was Tri-Dubai's funding.
"The sheikh is like Dubai Inc., and he's the CEO," he says. "He will empower everyone around him to make his city like New York. He's willing to do whatever he can. They're rich and Sheikh Mohammed is trying to make everyone in his whole city wealthy. I really believe that he will allow people to go for their vision. That's why they're doing things that are beyond belief."
Vatterott says that when he first met Mohammed: "I was definitely out of place. I was very, very nervous. He would enter the room and make me feel instantly comfortable.
"He doesn't have an ego. Everyone around him has a huge ego. He wears a very basic Swiss Army watch. He has all these palaces, but he doesn't sleep there. He'll go sleep with the horses in more modest dwellings, while his wives and family will be in the bling."
Well, that would certainly explain the air conditioning in the stables. Although, if Sheikh Mo doesn't have an ego, why are there murals of him covering the entire sides of skyscrapers?
A trainer blares the horn in a white SUV and drives alongside a lone camel galloping down the dusty race track. This is a training day, and the camel is being put through its paces on the long Nad Al Sheba course. The camel is running on its own without a jockey.
Hold on, it's not running alone. As the camel races closer to the covered grandstand, I can see — what the hell? — a small, remote-controlled robot jockey on the camel's back, slapping its little whip against the camel's flanks. It looks like an overgrown sock monkey.
Camel racing has a long tradition in Arab nations, but the sport drew worldwide condemnation because of the use and abuse of small, underage boys as jockeys. HBO's "Real Sports" detailed the brutal conditions in an award-winning 2004 broadcast, the U.S. State Department cited the abuse in a report on the U.A.E., and Anti-Slavery International said boys as young as 4 were "deprived of food and water to keep them light." ASI also claimed the government had turned a blind eye to the abuse, declining to enforce its own laws prohibiting the use of underage jockeys. A group filed a class-action suit last year in Florida against Sheikh Mohammed and the royal family over their possible involvement. Lawyers for the royal family told The New York Times that the suit is baseless, and the paper reported that a judge will decide within a month whether the case may proceed.
The U.S. State Department reports that the U.A.E. has made significant progress in eliminating the problems. Dubai also introduced the robot jockeys two years ago to replace the boys. The first jockeys were modeled after humans (one guidebook compared them to C-3PO dressed as a jockey), but those gave way to the smaller and lighter (five to six pounds) robots now used. The robots haven't completely replaced human jockeys — some camel trainers remain old school — and enough controversy still surrounds the sport that race schedules aren't so much announced as spread on a Fight Club-type circuit: News gets around to the right people by word of mouth.
Of course, even robot jockeys seem tame compared with the construction visible beyond the track.
Cranes work atop a cluster of a dozen buildings ranging as high as 40 and 60 stories, with one, the Burj Dubai, towering far above them all. The Burj Dubai will be the tallest building in the world when completed, though no one outside of the developers knows exactly how tall that is … and the developers aren't saying. You hear a lot of rumors about the Burj Dubai. It is growing at a floor a day. … No, construction has halted while the developers wait to see how tall a building in another country will be so that they can be certain to make the Burj Dubai taller. … It will be 2,300 feet high. It will be 160 stories high. … No, an image on its official Web site shows a graphic of an elevator button for a 194th floor. According to the Web site, the Burj Dubai is already at least 120 floors and 1,450 feet high and, from the comparisons shown, it appears it will be twice as high as the Empire State Building.
And this is only one slice of Dubai's vast construction. Trucks and cement mixers shuttle 24/7 on and off Palm Islands, a series of man-made islands in the shape of a giant palm tree (with a total land mass larger than Manhattan) due for completion next year. Another project under way, The World, will be a series of 250 more such islands forming the shape of — what else? — the Earth's continents. There is Dubai Sports City, Meydan horse city and Dubailand theme park. There is even a skyscraper that will rotate approximately 50 degrees a day to eventually give every resident the same view in the course of a week.
People think Las Vegas is growing fast? Dubai is Vegas on steroids.
And to think that 50 years ago, Dubai was nothing more than a town of several thousand people and a few scattered buildings surrounded by sand and desert. As recently as 1981, the population was only 250,000. It has swelled to 1.3 million now, with thousands more pouring in every month.
"We used to come here back when there was only one road and nobody on it," says Mark Johnston, who has been training horses for Sheikh Mohammed since the mid-'90s. "The Trade Center was the landmark. There was nothing else around."
If the Seattle SuperSonics asked Dubai to build them a $500 million arena, it would respond: Great. How high do you want the sky suites?
"Great. Now we have to wait another hour for the next race," a British woman in her early 20s complains along the rail as she watches Vengeance of Rain sprint past for a win. "I am sooooo bored."
"Mummy has bought us a bottle of champagne," the young man next to her says. "Let's go see Mummy."
While these expats go see "Mummy" in the Bubble Lounge on the north side of Nad Al Sheba, native men in rich ivory robes watch the races attentively from the reserved seating section across from the finish line. A far different group crowds the south side. Admission to this section of the track is free and thousands crowd the grandstand and the infield. Families sit with legs crossed, studying the race card. Women in black abayas stroll by with their children. Men in dishdashas blue jeans, T-shirts, Arab headwear and baseball caps review their Pick Seven choices. A few entrepreneurs offer cigarettes for sale, spreading their packages on the ground.
Mummy hasn't bought any champagne for these fans.
These are largely the foreign workers who come from all over south Asia and north Africa, the ones who work the low-pay service and construction jobs that keep Dubai growing. They are here for the horse races, a cheap night out and the slim hope of winning the Pick Seven. Betting on the horses is illegal, but the free Pick Seven is not. Pick all seven winners on the card correctly and you take home $14,000. The odds, of course, are astronomical, but $14,000 can represent four hard years of wages for some of these workers, who live in overcrowded work compounds outside Dubai. They bus in early each morning, six days a week, some riding two hours each way in the heavy traffic.
"They live eight to a room," my taxi driver said when we passed a work compound one day. "They make maybe $250 a month. I hear that some of them come here just so they can eat."
When he says this, I think of Peter Vittuli's description of the horse barns. Trust me when I tell you, I've stayed in places that aren't as nice as the stalls.
It has been alleged that some of these workers cannot leave because their work sponsors "misplace" their passports. They cannot earn citizenship no matter how many years they work in Dubai, nor can their children. The suicides of depressed workers have received international media attention. The Gulf News just reported that meningitis cases are rising among laborers and the government is considering mandatory vaccinations. Still, the wages are far better than they can earn in their homelands, and even if the conditions are poor, thousands more stream in each year to join them.
Pakistani workers line the front row of the grandstand, prominently holding posters of Sheikh Mohammed on an enlarged cover of "Horse and Horseman" magazine. They tell me someone came by and handed the posters to them. Whether the posters are a plant or not (these men are standing conveniently by the main press access to the winner's circle), the Pakistanis are delighted to hold them up and show their appreciation for Sheikh Mo.
"My brothers and I didn't have anything before we came here 19 years ago," says Asif Hussain, a salesman of building tools. "Sheikh Mohammed is a genius person. He is beloved. We love him very much. Dubai is a not a small country, it is a small world. Everyone is enjoying their life here."
The workers living eight to a room might disagree with that last bit.
Sports also play a part in Dubai's plan for foreign workers. In addition to attracting world-class events, Rashid Al Kamali says, the Dubai Sports Council wants to increase sports participation among the foreign workers and their children. "Sport is the perfect way to communicate with all the cultures and nationalities."
Four races into the card, the opening ceremonies begin. Fireworks burst. A trained horse trots onto the course, its saddle erupting into flames and sparks. A giant air compressor blows men aloft so they appear to fly. Arabian horses gallop across a movie screen stretching at least 50 yards across. A man riding an inflated horse sails over the track on a paraglider, a virtual Pegasus.
Dubai might not be in line to host the Olympics for another decade at least, but as a veteran of seven Olympics (including Yoko Ono "singing" in Torino) I can say this: It's ready to hold the opening ceremonies.
"Sheikh Mohammed's dream was to bring the best horses in the world together on one night and see who is No. 1," jockey legend and ABC broadcaster Jerry Bailey says. "And I think he's done that. He's spared no expense."
The World Cup feature race begins at 9:30 p.m.. The $6 million prize is enticing, but the presence of Sheikh Hamdan's Invasor and the only horse it has ever lost to, Godolphin's Discreet Cat, intimidates all but five other horses from even entering the race. It's the smallest field for the World Cup since the race started in 1996. The horses enter the starting gate and suddenly they're off. Discreet Cat gets boxed in along the rail early and jockey Frankie Dettori can't move up. As they enter the final stretch, Premium Tap has the lead but is unable to hold off the fast-closing Invasor, who goes on to win by almost two lengths. Discreet Cat finishes last.
Sheikh Mohammed must be disappointed, but he hides it well while presenting his brother with the World Cup trophy for Invasor's win.
"Winning the Breeder's Cup was great, but on a personal level, this win is more valuable to me, to be able to win the race here in this country for Sheikh Hamdan," McLaughlin says later. "What do you give a guy who already has everything?"
A good question, and here's another: Could tiny Dubai provide a model not just for sports but for the Middle East's future? After all, Qatar, a neighboring country facing a similar oil depletion, is following the sports model and also wants to host the Olympics.
Or is all this just a pipe dream as artificial as Ski Dubai? You might, after all, be able to blast enough air conditioning into a shopping mall to create a ski slope, but when you finish your run and your fondue, you're still in the desert in a region where people are willing to blow themselves up for their religious and national beliefs. Dubai may sculpt its own global image, and it can hire as many cheap foreign workers as it wants to haul as many tons of rock as possible into the Persian Gulf, but The World those man-made islands form will still be completely artificial.
For crying out loud, Dubai might be relatively open and Western, but how could it possibly host the Olympics if Israeli citizens are currently denied entry as a matter of official government policy?
I think of a movie I just saw, an Iranian movie titled, "Offside." This comedy-social commentary on Islamic values follows a half-dozen girls in their attempt to watch Iran play a World Cup soccer qualifier against Bahrain. Females are not allowed to go to games with men in Iran, so the girls try to sneak in dressed as boys. They are quickly arrested and taken away to be punished by the vice squad. But when Iran beats Bahrain to qualify for the World Cup, the city is so swept up with joy that their guards let them go to celebrate and dance and shoot off fireworks. Although fictional, the movie was filmed at the stadium during the actual game when women did protest the ban by forcing their way inside. And last spring, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dropped the ban on women at soccer matches.
Unfortunately, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, overruled the decree. Sports can be a powerful instrument of change, but it has obvious limitations.
So, is Dubai a road map for the future or just a temporary oasis of Western lifestyle? Does it seem far-fetched to picture Sheikh Mohammed one day lighting an Olympic torch? Probably from where you sit. But over here — and granted, maybe it's just all the hookah smoke going to my head — nothing seems too farfetched in a land where robots race camels, buildings climb into the clouds, snow falls on 100-degree days and horses fly against an indigo desert night sky.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Ave. In addition to "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," Caple's new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans," is on sale now.
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