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Meydan takes flight in Dubai

By RICHARD R. GROSS   |   Feb. 21, 2010 at 6:31 AM
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The seat bottoms resemble iMac computers blinking a dazzling array of colors in twilight, fueled by rooftop solar cells, a mile-long gathering of spectral fireflies on a cool winter's evening.

There are empty floors upon floors of wallboard, reinforced concrete and scaffolding, evidence of construction delays awaiting the completion of a five-star hotel and restaurants being rushed to meet a deadline five weeks away.

It is huge, the largest horseracing facility in the world. The grandstand alone is nearly a mile long, the length of 22 Boeing 747s placed end-to-end.

"I was gobsmacked" -- astounded -- "when I saw the grandstand," says Dubai's best-known jockey, Lanfranco Dettori, who has been racing here since 1994.

Perched at the apex is a gleaming titanium curve representing a falcon's wingspan, a fitting aerie in a nation for which that hunting bird is its symbol. The wing is fitted with 4,840 meter-square solar cells, which will gather enough energy to generate 20 percent of the electricity needed in the grandstand.

The whole of it is unfinished but not. Looking down one sees the completed functioning reason for the remaining disarray: two circular oval tracks, the inner one an all-weather, synthetic "dirt," the outer one perfectly manicured six-inch tall Bermuda grass.

Conceived in 2007 by horse-loving Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum at the peak of a dizzying finance and construction boom that saw 20 percent of the world's construction cranes busily gracing its "Blade Runner"-like skyline, Dubai's new Meydan Racecourse can be seen as an unfinished monument to ambitious excess, an "Ozymandias" moment.

Or perhaps it is the visionary gamble of a nation still attempting to transform itself from a seaside village of fishermen and pearl divers to a Casablanca-like vision of the world's future in the midst of a current financial crisis.

Whether excess or gamble, it is expensive, a reported $2 billion, more than 2 percent of Dubai's now-famous national debt.

Meydan, Arabic for "meeting place," opens officially March 27 when Dubai World Cup day serves up eight races with a record $10 million in purses. Meydan quietly opened for racing Jan. 28 with the annual Dubai International Racing Carnival, hosting more than 450 Thoroughbreds trained in 20 nations for nine meetings.

"Meydan is here now," said Sheik Mohammed, Dubai's ruler, who was in attendance opening night and seemed at an uncharacteristic loss for words when he saw the sheer scale of his vision come to life. "We should just be happy."

Meydan was conceived as a self-contained "city" rising from the desert south of Dubai with this racecourse as its hub. As many as 300 multiple-use buildings are part of the original plan though it is unclear how the current financial crisis will alter that plan. A series of canals is planned to wind through the development like a Middle East Venice and the Dubai Creek will be lengthened so racegoers can arrive at Meydan by Abra water taxis.

Attendance during the Racing Carnival has been nowhere near the shoulder-to-shoulder scrum in the apron near the parade ring that was common at Nad al-Sheba. Of course, those attendees are gone, former construction workers enjoying a free night on the town now returned home to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere as Dubai struggles to create a post-financial-crisis vision of itself.

Even in the current troubled financial environment, Meydan has continued the practice of free public admission to the grandstand and the apron surrounding the tracks and parade ring.

Writing in The Guardian, Greg Wood supposes: "Meydan may yet end up as an under-exploited white elephant. The glamor and excitement of top-class racing is a much harder sell when there are people abandoning their cars at the airport and getting out."

Others think Meydan is a shrewd gamble, destined to host racing on turf and Tapeta when the European and American circuits are inactive and other events when the world race calendar pauses.

"The vision was always that Meydan would be used 365 days a year, which is why there is so much adding that can be used outside racing times," says Frank Gabriel, Meydan's chief executive officer who brings world-class horseman credentials, most recently from Arlington Park outside Chicago.

Accordingly, Meydan's facilities include an equine-theme hotel, a racing museum, a marina and an IMAX cinema, all to enable the complex to remain busy on non-racing days.

Testing the multiple use waters, Meydan will host a performance by recording artist Sting during its Super Thursday program March 4.

The Meydan Masters, a gathering of winning jockeys from the world's signature races -- the Kentucky Derby, Epsom, The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the Hong Kong Vase, The Japan Cup and others -- is set for March 5.

Looking into the future, Gabriel asserts a fuller and more varied racing program beyond the current January to March season is a real possibility.

For now, the racecourse itself is the focus.

The track is innovative for Dubai. While Nad al-Sheba had a main outer circuit of true dirt and a less-used inner track of turf, Meydan swaps that configuration, in part to emphasize the preferred turf racing in Europe. Both are left-handed, like U.S. racecourses.

The "dirt" is different. In a land that inspired "Aladdin" and "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights." Horses will now have what Meydan officials hope is their own magic flying carpet: Tapeta, Latin for carpet, a familiar verbal relative to the tapestries that famously grace Arabia in handmade rugs and wall hangings.

Jockeys and trainers have been uniform in their praise of the new surface.

"When it's right, Tapeta is the best surface around," said jockey Russell Baze, who holds the U.S. record for lifetime winners and for winners on Tapeta.

"I think it's fair to say it gets a resounding 'thumbs-up' from the jockeys," Dettori concurred.

Inventor and horseman Michael Dickinson insists the surface, which replaces dirt with 16 metric tons of a wax-coated blend of mostly sand and a mix of polymers, will help end the nightmare of the nationally televised 2007 Breeders' Cup when European champion George Washington broke down and had to be euthanized on the spot at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, which had been soaked for days by rain, fatally softening a seven-inch dirt surface laid over solid concrete.

It is hoped that, because of Tapeta, race fans and horse lovers will never again witness the fatal breakdown of a Barbaro, an Eight Belles or a Ruffian.

"It's an honor, but also a huge responsibility," says Wilkinson about installing and maintaining the surface. "I'm never entirely satisfied until every horse and jockey has come back safe and sound."

So far, trainers and jockeys are uniform in their praise for the safety and fairness of the surface.

The choice of Tapeta also aides the probable goal of expanding Meydan's racing calendar. Used on the training track at Nad al-Sheba, the surface seemed to fare well in Dubai's notoriously hot climate in months bracketing the current race season.

"In terms of racing you always have to be very conscious of the temperature here," Gabriel cautioned. "In the future we will definitely look at ways to expand the racing program and add more days if that would be possible. It is still very hot in September, but the temperature starts to drop around October."

When Nad al-Sheba was built, its subtler purpose was to lure U.S. world-champion Cigar to Dubai. He came and he conquered, winning the Inaugural Dubai World Cup and placing Dubai on the map in more ways than horseracing.

Shrewd gamble or white elephant, Meydan seems designed to up that initial wager, successfully reinventing horseracing -- and perhaps Dubai -- yet again.

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