Post time for Dubai's $2 billion racing complex
The ruler of Dubai wasn't about to cut costs when it came to a sport he cherishes: thoroughbred racing.
Despite struggling to pay bills for his city-state's boom time excess, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has spared no expense with the opening of the $2 billion Meydan racing facility.
The complex includes two race tracks, a grandstand that holds 60,000 fans, a 290-room-with-a-view luxury hotel, a marina and a racing museum.
Meydan Racecourse is the latest indication that the indebted Gulf sheikdom has no plans to scale down ambitions to host high-profile sports events, including golf and tennis tournaments.
But it is Sheik Mohammed's love of horses that has made him one of the biggest spenders in the game. In addition to tens of millions of dollars invested in buying, breeding and racing hundreds of horses, he also bankrolls the world's richest race - the Dubai World Cup. This year, the purse jumps to $10 million, up from $6 million last year.
The sheik wants to put the Middle East's biggest social and sporting event on a par with Royal Ascot and the Kentucky Derby, which has a purse of $2 million.
``They all have lots of history and have produced many champions,'' said Saeed Humaid al-Tayer, the chairman of the Dubai Racing Club and chief executive of Meydan, a government-run company spearheading the project.
``We'd like to do the same,'' al-Tayer told The Associated Press in an interview.
The first race on the nearly 1 1/8th mile track with a synthetic surface is set for Thursday night. The complex officially opens March 27, the day of the World Cup.
A six-furlong turf race worth $1 million was added to World Cup day, making the 15th Dubai World Cup an eight-race meeting with a total purse of $26 million - a staggering amount in an economic recession that has seen Dubai's economy plunge deep into the red.
Many have wondered whether the Persian Gulf sheikdom will be able to afford to continue bankrolling big-money events in tennis, golf and horse racing after Dubai's massive debt problems surfaced late last year.
For decades, Dubai has worked hard to build itself into a financial power and the Middle East's entertainment and sports hub. The buildup has raised its international profile and led the emirate to consider bidding for the 2020 Olympics.
Dubai poured millions into sports infrastructure in the past decade, including building Sports City - a cluster of large venues that will stage sports and entertainment events. It also has academies for golf, tennis, soccer, rugby, cricket and swimming.
But the emirate's inability to pay for its opulent skyscrapers and artificial islands built with borrowed money has led to doubts that Dubai can afford to complete other ambitious projects, like the Meydan race complex, under construction since 2007.
While Al-Tayer acknowledged that Meydan was affected by the economic downturn, he says there was never any doubt that it would be completed in time.
``It's been a period we're all learning from, but 'not delivering' is not listed in our books,'' al-Tayer said.
Meydan features a left-handed 1 1/2-mile turf circuit outside of a smaller synthetic track that is just over a mile (1,750 meters) synthetic track. A six-furlong turf straight course, adjoining the outside track makes it ideal for a straight grass sprint, the circuit's developers say.
Like the old race course at Nad Al Sheba - razed following last year's World Cup - there are no betting windows at Meydan. Any form of gambling is illegal in Dubai, one of seven Arab Muslim city-states that make up the United Arab Emirates.
Sheik Mohammed and his family have been among the highest spenders at major American thoroughbred auctions dating to the 1980s, often paying millions of dollars for top bloodstock even during market downturns.
The sheik's goal of winning a Kentucky Derby has been amplified in recent years with some record-shattering purchases of not just stallions but also mares, including Playful Act, which he bought in 2007 at Keeneland for an unprecedented $10.5 million.
The highest finish for a Godolphin horse in the classic race was sixth, by China Visit in 2000.
Shiek Mohammed bulked up his horse operations in the United States with the 2001 purchase of Jonabell Farm in Lexington.
Earlier this month, Mohammed bought 360 acres of land in Aiken County, S.C., for a training center that will include a one-mile dirt training track.