Dubai World Cup Night is a festival of races held on the last Saturday in March at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The festival features a series of races at varying distances on dirt and turf, similar to the setup of the Breeder’s Cup races in the United States. The total purse money offered comes to approximately US $30.5 million, making it the richest night of the entire sport. Capping the celebration is the marquee race, the Group I Dubai World Cup, the world’s second richest race with a purse of US $12 million.
The winnings alone would make for an important and alluring destination for horsemen and their competitors, but the Dubai World Cup Night has more to offer than just prize money. The entire night is an embodiment of what is best in our sport, both regarding the people and the horses.
A Celebration Of The Horse
For Thoroughbreds, and those who race them, traveling to the Middle East can be a sort of pilgrimage, or a way to get in touch with the roots of the sport.
The modern Thoroughbred traces back to three important foundation sires: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian. Though the breed itself was cultivated in Europe, these key sires were, as their names suggest, brought over from the Middle East to give class and stamina to mares from European stock. While there is some evidence to suggest that the foundation sires might have merely shared a common ancestor with Arabians rather than having been pure-blood Arabians themselves, there is no doubt that these horses have their ancestral homes in the desert sands.
When the Dubai World Cup was inaugurated in 1996, international racing was just beginning to flourish. The United States held the annual Breeder’s Cup series in October/November, but there were few opportunities early in the racing calendar for top-level Thoroughbreds to compete against each other.
Also, all major European races take place over grass surfaces, meaning that American horses, who mostly race on the dirt, were unlikely to travel abroad for competition. This does not mean, however, that this race is not a headliner in American horse racing news, as fans of this activity often travel to Dubai to watch one of the world’s main events.
Thoroughbred racing in Dubai officially began in 1981, under the guidance of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. His wish was to develop the prominence of the sport not just within his country, but worldwide. These dreams came to fruition in 1996, when Dubai hosted the very first Dubai World Cup, then valued at US $4 million.
Although many of the Group I races on the Dubai World Cup card are run over the grass, the Dubai World Cup was announced as a dirt race with the hopes of attracting top North American talent as well as European. This proved to be a successful lure, and the first edition of the race contained eleven talented runners: four from the Godolphin stable that raced in the UAE and Europe, two from Great Britain, one from Japan, one from Australia, and three from the United States.
This American triad was especially exciting, for it included the 1995 Horse of the Year in the United States: Cigar, a six-year-old horse who was riding a thirteen-race win streak. A top performance from Cigar would do wonders to promote American racing on the global stage, but also would mean that Sheikh Mohammed could take pride in a truly international competitive event.
The race itself exceeded expectations. Cigar, recovering from a minor injury and cross-country travel, showed true grit, digging in to defeat fellow American competitor Soul of the Matter by a mere half-length. Cigar was unofficially crowned “Horse of the World,” and the Dubai World Cup became a permanent fixture on the racing calendar.
The Dubai World Cup, won in 2022 by Country Grammer, and the festival as a whole, have continued to grow ever since. The Group I races on Dubai World Cup Night have been won by horses based in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Africa.
The Best Of The Best
Group I races (referred to as Grade I in North America) are the top-rated races worldwide, and Dubai World Cup Night hosts five of them: the Dubai World Cup, the Dubai Turf, the Sheema Classic, the Golden Shaheen, and the Al Quoz Sprint. Although the World Cup is certainly the most famous of the races, the other four are just as prestigious within their divisions.
The Golden Shaheen and the Al Quoz Sprint are both run over the grass at approximately six furlongs; however, the Golden Shaheen features a left-handed turn while the Al Quoz is run on a straight course. Eight-year-old Dubai-based Switzerland took the 2022 Golden Shaheen, while the Al Quoz went to the Irish colt A Case of You.
The Dubai Turf and the Sheema Classic are grass races run at middle distances: 1 ⅛ miles and 1 ½ miles, respectively. Japan has won several recent editions of the former race, although the 2021 winner, the British-based Lord North, seemed poised to defend his crown; in the end, however, he was forced to share his honors with the Japanese horse Panthalassa, with whom he dead-heated for first place. The Sheema Classic was nearly as dramatic, with the Japanese Shahryar just holding on over a fast-closing Yibir, who was trying to become the first Breeders’ Cup Turf winner to add the Sheema Classic.