1996 and all that: Charles and Diana got divorced, Britpop still ruled the airwaves and everyone was terrified about Mad Cow disease. Football wasn’t coming home, either, at Euro96, as Gareth Southgate’s penalty was saved and England went out in the semis (to Germany, naturally).
It all seems so long ago, but it isn’t, not really; just over a couple of decades. Which is, perhaps, a fact well worth recalling when you consider this weekend’s Dubai World Cup card, because it seems almost incredible that such a permanent fixture on the global racing calendar began only in March 1996.
That was when the legendary Cigar, ‘America’s Horse’, lit up the desert skies with an epic triumph over adversity at Nad Al Sheba, a racecourse that did not exist just a few years previously, in a gulf state that was virtually uncharted territory not so long before – “little more than a desert outpost with a two-storey palace occupied by the Maktoum family” according to one account.
How times have changed. The Dubai World Cup card is now long established as the world’s richest raceday, the climax of a cosmopolitan carnival lasting three months broadcast live on TV channels around the world.
Even if Godolphin have reigned omnipotent this year, horses from 17 different countries accepted invitations to run at the carnival; no fewer than 11 nations will be represented in the eight thoroughbred races on Saturday’s card (plus Poland and Saudi Arabia in the Dubai Kahayla Classic for Purebred Arabians). Thunder Snow’s bid to become the first dual World Cup winner is just one of five Group 1 races for thoroughbreds, augmented by three Group 2s; total prize-money is $35 million.
Presumably no one needs reminding that Dubai itself stands utterly transformed, firmly on the international map as a thriving metropolis, a centre for tourism and finance that will on Saturday host the 24th edition of the world’s richest race at magnificent Meydan, the ultra-modern mammoth of international racing in the 21st century.
Frankly, the place is staggering. Size matters in Dubai, and first impressions can only be commandeered by the sheer gobsmacking magnitude of the mammoth ten-storey grandstand, housing a hotel and Imax cinema. Opened in 2010, this is a once-seen-never-forgotten behemoth, shown to best effect after dark, when the distinctive crescent-shaped roof that rests atop this iconic building stands illuminated beneath the desert night sky. It would be hard to envisage a more atmospheric venue.
’Meydan’ is Arabic for ‘a place where people congregate’ and more than 60,000 will populate the grandstand on World Cup night for the racing plus a post-race concert, this time featuring Gwen Stefani. They’ve had Kylie Minogue, Janet Jackson and J-Lo in the past.
Dubai isn’t the only thing that has changed since the first World Cup, however. So has the entire racing world, with horses almost routinely jetting between continents to contest lavishly endowed events on the other side of the planet.
But it wasn’t always like that, which probably explains why the advent of the Dubai World Cup was met with such cynicism, critics wasting little time pointing to the alleged shortcomings of a new race with no semblance of heritage whatsoever. Nor even any certainty of immediate prestige, given that the first two World Cups were not even granted Group-race status, the event not having the necessary history to be accorded such a rating; they were only Listed races officially speaking.
Showpiece events like the Breeders’ Cup and Japan Cup – or the Washington DC International and Arlington Million before them – had fostered the concept of transcontinental competition that we now largely take for granted.
But what Sheikh Mohammed envisaged for Dubai was a true world championship event, featuring the best horses from nearly every continent, chasing the biggest prize the sport had ever known. And all this, not on lush turf or even traditional American dirt, but a sand track thousands of miles away from racing’s traditional heartlands on the eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Surely even for the Maktoums, who had long since come to dominate European racing since their initial baby steps in the late 1970s, this was a bridge too far?
Then again, the words ‘It can’t be done’ have rarely featured in the vocabulary of Sheikh Mohammed, and he set about taking horse racing back to where it had started 250 years previously when three Arabian stallions were removed from their desert home to establish the thoroughbred in Britain.
The Dubai Racing Club did not come into existence until 1992, when Meydan’s predecessor Nad Al Sheba was opened in November; Godolphin’s first winner, Cutwater, came in a maiden the following month. With limitations on the free movement of horses to Dubai in Nad Al Sheba’s earliest days, international jockeys’ challenges provided the main attraction; such events were to pave the way for what was to come in 1996.
To borrow the title of the popular movie, Dubai was to become racing’s very own Field of Dreams. In that 1989 fantasy-sports drama, Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer who hears a voice telling him: “If you build it, he will come.”
Costner’s character interprets this as an instruction to build a baseball diamond in his cornfields; after he does, Shoeless Joe Jackson and other baseball ghosts come to play ball.
Sheikh Mohammed, though, was no Iowa corn farmer. He built it, and come they did: at a stroke, with a $4m purse the initial Dubai World Cup was the richest race in history, and that first 11-runner field included horses from four continents led by the great Cigar, who brought a distinctly American-flavoured dose of equine glamour.
Godolphin’s Halling and Frankie Dettori were at the head of the domestic defence, while Britain’s first Dubai World Cup runners were Geoff Wragg’s subsequent King George winner Pentire, ridden by Michael Hills, and the Brett Doyle-partnered Needle Gun, trained by Clive Brittain, seldom one to pass an international windmill without fancying a tilt.
With multiple Group 1 winners Danewin and Lively Mount representing Australia and Japan, Nad Al Sheba had assembled the sort of field demanded by the hype. “The Dubai World Cup – the race we’ve been waiting for,” proclaimed Sheikh Mohammed – and that was before Cigar, whose preparation had been seriously hampered by a training setback, handed instant credibility to the race by extending his celebrated winning streak in a fearsome stretch duel with compatriot Soul Of The Matter.
Strange to relate, but even after such a giddy opening salvo, there were still those who questioned the relevance of the Dubai World Cup, voicing doubts about its future and longevity.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but a look down the list of subsequent winners, from Singspiel to Arrogate via Dubai Millennium, Curlin and California Chrome, would have told them anything they needed to know.
The Dubai World Cup was here to stay, and the global racing calendar has never been the same since.
MOST MEMORABLE DUBAI WORLD CUPS
1996 Cigar (Bill Mott/Jerry Bailey)
In a race to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner just would not be denied. Almost on his own, he put the Dubai World Cup on the map.
1997 Singspiel (Michael Stoute/Jerry Bailey)
The second Dubai World Cup was postponed for five days when torrential rain hit Dubai. Making his dirt debut and ridden by Cigar’s jockey Jerry Bailey, Michael Stoute’s globe-trotting performer kept the US-trained dirt specialists Siphon and Sandpit at bay.
1998 Silver Charm (Bob Baffert/Gary Stevens)
Winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes the previous season, Bob Baffert’s grey held off Godolphin’s Swain in a thrilling final-furlong duel at Nad Al Sheba.
2000 Dubai Millennium (Saeed Bin Suroor/Frankie Dettori)
An absolute tour de force as Sheikh Mohammed’s favourite horse led after a furlong and pulled further and further away for a devastating six-length victory over US star Behrens in track record time. Frankie Dettori said he was the best he’d ever ridden.
2011 Victoire Pisa (Katsuhiko Sumii/Mirco Demuro)
An emotional result on the Meydan Tapeta surface (now replaced by dirt) as Victoire Pisa led home a Japanese one-two less than three weeks after the country had been struck by an earthquake and tsunami. Jockey Mirco Demuro came back in tears, while trainer Katsuhiko Sumii said that he felt that "the whole country was behind me”.
2016 California Chrome (Art Sherman/Victor Espinoza)
A brilliant performance from the hugely popular American superstar, who streaked clear in the straight despite his saddle slipping in the closing stages and having conceded significant early ground out wide.
2017 Arrogate (Bob Baffert/Mike Smith)
“If anybody wasn’t super-impressed by that, they just don’t like horse racing,” suggested Bob Baffert after an astonishing last-to-first display on a wet track. Overcame adversity in what was arguably the greatest performance ever seen at Meydan.
Nicholas is appearing on Stateside on Sky Sports Racing on Wednesday evening, covering the action from Tampa Bay Downs and Mahoning Valley.