Gold markets, vast shopping malls and designer outlets – Dubai has established itself as a city of monetary excess, a place where if you need to ask the price of something, you probably canâ€™t afford it.
The horseracing is the same. In only a short time, Dubai has made a name for itself as the epicentre of glitz and glam as well as becoming a hub for the best racehorses in the world during the winter months.
The cityâ€™s newest racecourse, Meydan, can boast facilities like no other: swimming pools, hotels and restaurants – and thatâ€™s just in the half-mile long grandstand. But, like a major football club tends to find its best players through smaller feeder clubs, Meydan is not the racecourse where all horses begin their careers.
Only the best race in Dubai and so it is left to the handful of other racecourses in the United Arab Emirates to give future champions their first chance to shine.
One such course is Sharjah, a half-hour drive from Dubaiâ€™s huddled skyscrapers. Here, there is no expensive dining, no luxury spas… in fact, thereâ€™s not even an admission fee – you just turn up and enjoy the dayâ€™s action, as around two hundred locals had done when I was there. Not too bad considering the place is in the middle of nowhere.
The seven races on the card are a mix of thoroughbred and Arabian horse events with jockeys on board that would seem familiar on a wet and windy afternoon at Nottingham: riders such as Tadhg Oâ€™Shea, Royston Ffrench, Pat Dobbs and Richard Mullen all head to these sunny shores for five months of the year.
The similarity with UK racing ends there though. The names of horses are as alien to British punters as dogs are to computers, and the form is as reliable as a French worker.
It doesnâ€™t matter though as gambling is outlawed in the UAE, and the course is eerily quiet without a raucous choir of bookies shouting the odds. However, if the thought of going to the races without the chance to win anything is unbearable, there is a â€˜Lucky Sixâ€™ competition which is free to enter – all you have to do is pick the first six winners on the card and you could win a car. The locals love it, some entering two or three times. Iâ€™m not sure if anyone has told them that the car on offer is only a Toyota.
Things are pretty routine as proceedings get underway – winners win, losers lose – all accompanied by separate commentaries at either end of the small but relatively new grandstand – one in English, the other in Arabic.
The course is a tight, left-handed affair with a deep, artificial racing surface, most comparable to Southwell back home and it provides a stern test of the horsesâ€™ stamina. Finishes are slow but close-knit nonetheless, thanks to the competitive racing provided by ten-plus runners in each heat.
Because there is no betting, those that attend the races are solely there because they are passionate about the sport. There is no pressure of winning or losing vast sums of money: rather, the spectators are watching a sport they love, pure and simple. If a locally-trained horse wins, the roof is blown off.
That is, however, the only time you will hear the crowd getting vocal. With no alcohol on sale at the track, the mass of drunks so familiar at British tracks in midsummer are absent. The atmosphere may be less absorbing as a result but at least thereâ€™s no-one to spill a pint of snakebite down your new shirt.
Sharjah may not be Ascot or Goodwood, perhaps not even Wolverhampton, but it is a racecourse and if you love the game of horseracing, youâ€™ll feel right at home.
By Ross Birkett
Ross, son of trainer Julia Feilden, is currently enjoying a ‘working holiday’ in Dubai (lucky bugger!), and writes regularly on his own blog at www.sportingpost.net