Have Horse, Will Travel

By Victor Zast
Two years from now, the new downtown in Dubai will replace the new downtown in Dubai.

Despite the 24-hour strike by foreign laborers to raise their wages from $5 to $6 a day, the world's tallest building, like the ascender in an Arabic sentence, will soon scratch the ceiling of this sunny paradise.

Who's going to occupy the 5,000 buildings going up? Nobody seems worried. One-third of the world's construction cranes are here, their presence a testimony to optimism.

If you are getting the idea that Dubai is a frenetic place, you're only partially right. True, it's difficult to dismiss the oddities--the Bird Flu section in the morning newspaper, the robot jockeys on the racing camels, and the market in Sharjah for Katrina-flooded cars. It's the restless nature of the Bedouin that is hard to fathom.

Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, has set this oasis on a course to become a world capital, but it will never be a city in the description of London or Hong Kong.

Next up is an underwater hotel that will greet guests arriving by submarine. There are plans to air-condition the golf courses and posters announcing the opening of Dubailand, a better Disneyland.

Not everyone is affected by the adrenaline. Time is irrelevant to the tourists who are lolling about poolside. Life is effortless for the visitors who, at the wave of a hand, will get what they desire.

Incomparable Dubai, of course, is already the site of the world's richest horse race--the $6-million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). And, as you'd expect, the force behind the race is Sheikh Mohammed. He, in fact, is the source of all pleasure here, and pleasures abound.

At the Arabian Nights party, the excess included food stations as far as the waistband would stretch. There were belly dancers, camel rides, water pipes, henna tattoos, falconry and fireworks, and that wasn't the end of it.

The highlight of the night was the parade of the sheikh and his bride, the daughter of the late King Hussein. As their entourage moved resolutely through a mosh pit, the air filled with electricity and caused old men to feel young again.

The captivating scene was a reminder that horse racing is a reason for people to gather. It is not some drab accommodation for sitting through a dreary simulcast.

And gather they did--Emiratis, Pakistanis, Sudanese, and expatriates from England, a representation of 183 nations in all--in a hodge-podge of grandstands and restaurants and majlis demarcated by Oriental rugs. As the Sheikh led Godolphin's Electrocutionist into the winner's circle, the adoring mass erupted in unison, prompting the ruler to place a finger to his lips for quiet. Yet, the noise wouldn't subside.

Four races earlier, stunt riders on dancing horses and performers on trampolines that hung from balloons in the sky and torch bearers prancing about made Nad Al Sheba racecourse seem like Las Vegas. In Sheikh Mohammed, his horse, and its rider, Frankie Dettori, the crowd now had rock stars to cheer.

But if you're an American, you must put down your bowl of burgoo at Keeneland to partake in such ultra entertainments. Get over the nagging belief that international racing isn't worth the effort.

Nineteen horses from the United States were there to run for purses of more than $21 million. Befitting their efforts, the first five finishers in the $2-million Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) and the first three horses behind Electrocutionist in the World Cup (UAE-I) were American-based.

Trainers ship their runners coast-to-coast for far less than the value of the stakes in Dubai. They race at tracks without the charm and excitement of foreign ports. Why not cross oceans for a shot at a lucrative payday?

Observers believe there are so many rich purses in America that traveling overseas is a needless risk. Still others blame the medication, quarantine rules, and a fear of the region by Americans for a reluctance to ship. Whatever the reason for some to stay put, people with a sense of adventure will travel.

"I've waited a lifetime for a horse like this," said Fred Bradley, the breeder and owner of World Cup runner-up Brass Hat, advisedly. "I'm going to let him take me to places that I've never been."

For owners like him, the age of the horse as a means of transportation isn't over.