March 22 (UPI) -- The $35 million Dubai World Cup horse races, arguably the sport's premier event, were canceled Sunday, just six days out and with many of the international runners already on the grounds at Meydan Racecourse.
Organizers earlier had announced they would run the races without fans in attendance. Even that plan became untenable as the threat of spreading COVID-19 grew.
"To safeguard the health of all participants, the higher organizing committee of the Dubai World Cup 2020 has decided to postpone [the] 25th edition of the global tournament to next year," government officials said Sunday morning.
Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is both ruler of Dubai and the driving force behind the country's racing program as head of Godolphin. The World Cup was his brainchild.
The decision leaves myriad unanswered questions, including arrangements for getting horses and their caretakers out of Dubai.
Trainer Mark Casse, whose Sir Winston was to have competed in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup, was caught off-guard when contacted by The Blood-Horse. Casse had not yet left the United States.
"Yesterday they said it was going to go on and today's it's canceled," Casse told the publication. "But one thing is for sure -- there are more serious matters than horse racing. We've just got to go on and try to get the world fixed."
Casse said he was told if traveling staff does not exit the country within a few days, members could be stuck for an extended period.
The equine cast lined up for the six Group 1 and two Group 2 races included stars from as far away as Japan, Hong Kong and Europe. However, Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien said days earlier his powerful string would not travel to Dubai in light of the health emergency.
Three U.S.-based 3-year-olds were set to run in the Group 2 UAE Derby, a race which awards qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. Since the Derby has been pushed back from May to September, those runners now will have a chance to return home to contest expected additional qualifying races.