Two challenges leap from Saturday night. For the world: how to further integrate Meydan’s limitless potential. For Britain, how to do the same without ruining William Buick, the star that was born on that sweltering desert night.
Harnessing remarkable achievement is often more difficult than actually delivering it, and that is certainly saying something in the case of Meydan. For in full, sober, morning-after reflection, I am still convinced that what happened under that Arabian moon was the most remarkable thing I have seen in a racing life that has reported from Japan Cups, Breeders Cups, Melbourne Cups, Arcs, Derbies, Grand Nationals, Cheltenham and all the rest.
Not nearly as people-big as Japan where the crowd was over 150,000 in Tokyo, not as famous as Ascot, not as “stops-the-nation” significant as Melbourne or The Grand National, not as dramatic as that 1990 “glory-and-disaster” day at Belmont with Dayjur, Go For Wand and Lester Piggott, not as historic as Epsom, not as tribally important as Cheltenham, not as consumer friendly as Arlington or as metropolitan as Longchamp, not a patch as organized as Hong Kong. Yet in all sorts of ways, Saturday night at Meydan re-wrote the racing book.
That it was all done within twelve months and cost unsaid millions at a time of apparent national credit crisis is just an astonishing irrelevance. A place that can knock up such contrasting extravagances as The Palm, the indoor snow mountain and the 2,717 foot spike that is the Burj Al Khalifa was not going to be daunted by mere construction. But to create the most advanced actual racetrack complex at the same time as building the world’s longest “landscraper”, a 1,575 metre grandstand and hotel complex which includes that 11th floor rooftop infinity pool (surely the ultimate corporate box), is a combining of disciplines almost impossible to execute in any time limit. Ask Ascot – and they only had to relay the straight.
Homage to Sheikh Mohammed should be Dubai’s business, and the front pages of the newspapers not to mention big building bill boards duly do their duty. So it is purely pragmatic to report that his practical, horseman’s fingerprints are all over the actual racecourse. Visiting in the thick fog of Thursday morning was a perfect first experience, like a wine-tasting taken blind.
For from where the horses were gathered at the centre of the track you could not see the stands however huge or good they might be. What mattered was whether horsemen’s views were being taken seriously. An intense, angular, now silver- haired figure stood, testing rod poised, in the middle of his Tapeta surface marching up to every horse and quizzing the rider as to exactly what he felt beneath the hoof. Michael Dickinson serious? Is the Pope a Catholic?
Other places have long had facilities as extensive as these. Crikey, Tokyo had artificial surfaces and rubberized paddock-to-infield tunnels back in the early ‘80s. But, super efficient and friendly though the Japanese always were, it was very hard to get through the importance of getting international horseman onside. One year we even dragged Peter O’Sullevan to a Japan Cup debrief in downtown Tokyo to try and explain to the authorities that un-watered turf was not just a welfare but a practical issue in that European trainers would not take part.
The difference in the Dubai World Cup is that the horsemen have been involved from the very beginning. Late on one particular March night in 1995, John Gosden was sitting in Sheikh Mohammed’s private villa by the sea. We had come on from the third attempt at a ground breaking jockeys’ challenge conceived (by me !) on the assumption that while Nad Al Sheba was still too modest and disorganized to get international equine stars to make the trip, we could get the world’s best riders along.
We had actually done pretty well. We had legends like Chris McCarron, Jerry Bailey, Mick Kinane, Pat Day and the splendid Yukio Okabe whose live interview on Channel 4 was somewhat bedevilled by the information that he spoke fluent English. Which he did not.
We had 6 races with rides seeded by ability, we had international press and worldwide TV coverage. But in truth it was not completely satisfactory. Both professionals and public should be have been fascinated by which jockey actually rode best on the day. But somehow they weren’t. Sheikh Mohammed sensed this. “What is the richest race in the world?” he asked in that crisp, “let’s-get-to-the-quick” way of his. “We should be bigger,” he said. I began to explain that the Japan Cup was an impossible $3m to the winner and that they had spent some time getting the quarantine clearance which at that stage his country absolutely lacked.
It was too much negativity and, crucially, John Gosden intervened. “It can all be done Sir,” he said. “But it will be essential that we keep the horsemen onside. If they think we are batting for them, the will be right behind you.” The Dubai World Cup was conceived that night and the world record prize money and the recruiting of Cigar put it on the road in 1996. But Nad al Sheba was never going to be a world class stadium and with Sheikh Mohammed’s ambition the Meydan development was only a surprise, albeit a gobsmacking one, in its scale. The question now – is what next?
For Saturday night was a statement. Despite the (unseasonal) 104 degrees afternoon heat, Meydan was able to play host to a 5 continent gathering with a fanfare no other place could match. The previous gig for the man who did the fireworks was the Obama inauguration, and the pre World Cup theatricals were not just elaborate but deeply moving – and that is before we added Elton John afterwards.
It is inconceivable that Meydan should be used for just one big international show and some winter spectacular is surely needed – perhaps a Christmas time climax to an “Asian Triple Crown” following the Japan Cup at the end of November and the Hong Kong Invitational a fortnight later. Of course there will be “nose-out-of-joint” difficulties but, as of Saturday, everyone can see the possibilities. The trick is how to use them.
Which brings us to William Buick. Above all else British flat racing’s marketing men crave a young, handsome, charming star around which they can personalize the game the way Japan did so successfully with Yutaka Take twenty years ago. Suddenly, and of all things on an Andrew Lloyd Webber horse, they have got one. If they have their way, and William’s season takes off as it should do, they will have him splashed across the media as if he was already something between Lester Piggott and Steve Cauthen. Which he isn’t yet – although in looks and style he does stir very real memories of the great American.
But at 21 William is only starting out in the big time. Lester was first in the headlines as a 12 year old and never out of them thereafter. Steve became the first ever jockey to win $6m in a season when still only 17. At 18 he won the Triple Crown on Affirmed and two days after his 19th birthday he was over here and winning the 2,000 Guineas on Tap On Wood. These are the giant’s footsteps of the racing game.
But there was no doubting the star quality on Saturday night and the comparativeness lateness of William’s breakthrough can yet play to his advantage. For as his father Walter Buick is a much liked member of the press room, William has known all the media since he was a boy. He has had a unique professional grounding from his father and from Ian and Andrew Balding where he has spent his formative years. And above all he is now riding for John Gosden, the media master above all other trainers.
It was Gosden who picked up the 21 year old Dettori when Frankie had flown too close to the sun. He knows better than anyone what an asset William could be if he can keep concentrating but keep smiling too. Suddenly, as the wider world takes in Meydan, we have a jockeys championship to die for. New face William against set face Ryan against a “before- I- am -40 “ Frankie against a “wants it back” Kieren. Just when the bell was tolling – things are looking up.