Stepping off the plane in Dubai marks the arrival into a land of heat, horses and high-rises.
While the bustling city itself is no place for the real thing, the Al Qasr hotel at The Madinat in Jumierah gives an indication of just how important the horse is to the United Arab Emirates.
The hotel’s sweeping entrance way is lined with 18 larger-than-life bronze arabian horse sculptures, both stallions and mares, and all in dramatic poses. These beautiful golden horses are 1 1/4 life size, and shine like the sun.
And at the hotel’s entrance is an elaborate fountain with eight double life-sized bronze abstract horse torsos.
All of these were created by South African sculptor Danie de Jager, who died in 2003. What is amazing is that you can get right up close to all of these beautiful sculptures.
Two additional arabian horses are featured, a bold red horse with a gold patterned coat, and inside the porte-cochere a white horse with an arabian costume.
The resort itself is beautiful, with an array of restaurants and hotels. And the breakfasts are legendary – but that is another story!
There is much to see in the bustling city, but heading out of the centre of Dubai reveals yet more equine treasures. The biggest of these is the spectacular Meydan Racecourse, a stunning facility that must be among the biggest and best-tended horse racing tracks in the world. It would take an aerial image to capture the full scope of this massive track, which has a capacity of 60,000 guests. Indeed, the roof alone is 63,000 square feet of curved solar and titanium panels.
Unfortunately, we were one day early for a race meeting; staff were busily preparing the grounds and facilities. Horse racing is immensely popular here, and great gallopers from around the world travel to take part in the Dubai World Cup, held in March each year. What is even more incredible is that there is no gambling at the track.
But we were fortunate enough to have a quick tour around the inside facilities, including the jockey’s room and gym. Nearly every surface throughout the mile-long facility has equine touches – from the inlaid horse-shoe designs on the floor, to the three stories of balconies carved into the shape of a horse’s head, as seen from below. Some touches are more subtle than others, but all pay homage to the horse. It is easy to run out of superlatives when describing the racecourse.
As well as the racetrack, Meydan Racecourse has 72 suites for viewing the races, ranging in size from 50 to 415 square metres, each with its own facilities. The track also has several lounges and restaurants, a 285-room hotel, a spa and fitness centre, and an Imax theatre, as well as a rooftop pool and swim-up bar. And if your eyesight is not what it used to be, you can watch the races on the 353-foot long LED screen inside the track.
If the racetrack is the home of the thoroughbred, then the desert must surely be the home of the original desert horse – the arabian. As dusk approached we drove deep into the desert where we saw large teams of endurance horses coming in and cooling down from their daily exercise. The setting sun produced long shadows in the coolest part of the day as we watched these athletes wait their to return to their air-conditioned stables.
The sport of endurance riding is huge in this part of the world, and we also paid a brief visit to the immaculate Dubai International Endurance City, with its state-of-the-art permanent facilities that must be the envy of endurance clubs world-wide.
Alas, in another timing mis-fire, a big race was to get under way the very next day.
Earlier that morning we’d traveled even further out to a camel racing track. The size of this sport is staggering, with the racetracks stretching out into the desert for miles. We watched several strings of camels undergoing their morning exercise on a training track, some with riders and others with mechanical jockeys on board, which are remote-controlled by a trainer driving alongside the track.
Compared to horses, camels look as if their conformation could not possibly stand up to galloping – but they do, and it is an incredibly popular sport. As the tracks are so huge spectators take to their vehicles and drive alongside to watch the action and support their favourite runners. What fun would it be otherwise? The tradition of following the runners in vehicles has carried through to the equine endurance races, though limits are now being placed on the practice.
Many auxiliary services are located beside the camel track, with dozens of feed, tack and other merchants plying their trade. Feed is imported from as far afield as Australasia and North America, and a fleet of small trucks is on hand to deliver the goods.
The most amusing of the stores is where the robotic jockey skeletons are brought to life. Dressed in tiny silks complete with caps, I’m sure the original makers of the Dewalt drill would never have dreamed their product was destined to bring tiny jockeys to life.
The final stop on our whistle-stop equine tour was to the Emirates Equestrian Centre, a huge facility where preparations for an FEI World Cup Showjumping competition were under way. Several retired endurance horses as well as jumpers and dressage horses live here during the season, and we stopped briefly to watch a one-on-one jumping lesson being given by British eventer Nick Gauntlett, who regularly travels to the UAE to give clinics.
As night fell in the desert, we stopped at the Bab El Shams Desert Resort for an authentic Middle Eastern meal. This centre has eight restaurants, and we caught the last of the sunset at the Al Sarab Rooftop Lounge.
A fitting end to a whirlwind trip to a unique part of the world.