Around 4km south of Ras al Khor, the vast Meydan complex provides conclusive proof of the ruling Maktoum family’s passion – bordering on obsession – for all things equine. Centrepiece of the complex is the superb racecourse, opened in 2010 to replace the old track at nearby Nad al Sheba and provide a new and more fitting venue for the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race with a massive US$10 million in prize money. The complex also contains the usual fancy five-star hotel along with a few other buildings in a mixed residential and business development which is eventually intended to form a self-contained “city” along the lines of Festival City down the road.
Ruler and architect of contemporary Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum is also celebrated in racing circles as one of today’s leading owners and breeders of thoroughbreds in his role as the founder of Godolphin, established in 1994 and now one of the world’s largest and most successful racing stables. Sheikh Mohammed’s love of horses runs deep: he is said to have shared his breakfast with his horse en route to school as a boy, to have competed in his first horse race aged 12, and to have been able to tame wild horses considered unrideable by others. His love of the turf dates back to his time as a student at Cambridge in England in the 1960s, and within a decade he and his brothers Hamdan and Ahmed all had horses in training at nearby Newmarket. The first of many Maktoum family triumphs came in 1982, when Hamdan’s Touching Wood won that year’s St Leger classic at Doncaster, followed up by Derby wins in 1989 and 1994.
Godolphin now have over 1500 horses in training across the globe and have won more than 2000 races in fourteen different countries, becoming one of the biggest buyers and breeders of racehorses on the planet, with a total investment in bloodstock, stud farms and various related properties now totalling a cool US$2.4 billion. In 2013, they also had the less enviable distinction of finding themselves at the centre of one of the biggest scandals to hit racing in years when 22 horses at their Newmarket stables in the UK were found to have been dosed with anabolic steroids by their trainer, Mahmood al Zarooni. Al Zarooni was swiftly banned from horse racing for eight years while Sheikh Mohammed professed himself “absolutely appalled” by the actions of one of his own trainers. Nevertheless, the affair’s potential long-term damage to Godolphin’s reputation – and perhaps even to that of Sheikh Mohammed himself – may take years to repair.