US absence from Dubai World Cup
It was a good moment to pause and take in the view after the Dubai World Cup on Saturday evening because, if the persistent rumours in the run-up to race night are correct, Meydan will look quite different when the sport’s richest card is staged this time next year. The charcoal-grey Tapeta racing surface on the main track is said to be on borrowed time, with American-style dirt lined up to replace it to encourage US-trained horses to return to the meeting.
It could be idle chatter. The only opinion in Dubai that matters belongs to Sheikh Mohammed and he does not hang around the backstretch of a morning sharing his thoughts and plans.
But the rune-reading does suggest that something is afoot. Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, Sheikh Mohammed’s older brother, recorded his own misgivings about Tapeta in the Gulf News this week while it was also announced that the Sheema Classic and Dubai Duty Free, already the richest turf events in the world, will be worth an extra $1m next year. This would give owners reluctant to run on dirt two attractive alternatives.
What is also hard to deny is that the meeting needs to do something, and probably something quite dramatic, to address the declining number of runners from the US. It is a key aim of both the Sheikh’s Godolphin racing operation and the World Cup to advertise Dubai around the globe, and while there is a temptation to say that if the Americans do not want a share of $29m then that’s their problem, the US remains the largest racing industry of all. There were horses from 13 countries racing in Dubai on Saturday, but if the best of the Americans are happy to swerve the big race, is it really a World Cup?
American horses, including the outstanding champions Cigar and Curlin, won eight of the 14 World Cups on the dirt at Nad Al Sheba. This year there were only three US-trained runners on the entire card, only one in any of the three feature events and none at all in the World Cup itself.
If even Sheikh Hamdan is prepared to break cover, there are clearly issues with the Tapeta as it stands. It would be ridiculous to criticise a racing surface simply because the “wrong” horses keep winning. If the “right” horses always won, there would be no uncertainty and therefore no racing. But the near total failure of the fancied horses – the ones at single-figure prices – even to make the frame in Meydan World Cups will be too pronounced to be a blip if it continues any longer.
There are too many races in which the great majority of the runners are beaten before they have entered the home straight and too many in which every jockey wants to sit in the middle of the pack. As Ryan Moore said this week: “On dirt it’s fine as you go fast and get strung out but on [Tapeta] you can get [to the] front, put the handbrake on and it all gets messy.”
Whether the answer is to revert to dirt is another matter. A personal view is that it would be a backward step and, what is more, at the worst possible time. The fallout from an undercover video shot by the animal rights group PETA is currently convulsing American racing, and returning the issue of the harsh dirt surface used for both racing and training to the agenda.
Tapeta was installed at Meydan when it seemed that US racing in general was moving towards synthetics.
That trend was swiftly reversed in the face of strong resistance from trainers in particular, many of whom found it difficult – or claimed to find it difficult – to condition horses on an artificial surface.
But the PETA video provides a timely reminder that many find it virtually impossible to train horses on dirt without constant reliance on legal, and possibly not so legal, medication. In Britain the big races offer a prize for the owner, trainer, jockey and groom. In the States they should possibly add the vet and pharmacist to that list, too. Dirt is hard-wearing and above all cheap but fundamentally it is a harsh, primitive racing surface.
A bigger carrot would be a better way to try to attract the best US horses and there was an interesting aside from one leading Meydan official this week that “20 is now a very important number for us in Dubai”. This referred to Dubai’s success in winning the right to stage Expo 2020 in six years’ time but also set loose the thought that a $20m World Cup would be a good way to celebrate and advertise Expo, too.
Five years is too soon to start ripping up the Tapeta and starting again but this could be a decision which has already been made. Sheikh Mohammed may decide to hike the World Cup prize fund, or revert to