01/22/2010 1:00AM

Mideast gets a new racing jewel

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Meydan Racecourse, Sheikh Mohammed s sparkling new gift to Thoroughbred racing, will open on Thursday night in Dubai to international fanfare after nearly having stalled in the race to completion. Fears that the worldwide recession, which hit Dubai particularly hard and held up construction of the facility for a brief time this past summer, have been laid to rest. The new grandstand is ready to receive customers.

Meydan will be more than a state-of-the-art racing facility, as it includes a hotel, a marina, and a racing museum, all of which come with a price tag estimated to be as high as $2 billion. The grandstand itself five furlongs long with a distinctive crescent roof will seat 20,000 and have a capacity of 60,000. Dubai Racing Club officials are hoping to squeeze in 80,000 for Dubai World Cup Night on March 27, when the World Cup itself, newly enriched to $10 million, highlights an eight-race card worth $26.5 million.

Some of the tourists among them may prefer to watch the races from the comfort of the Meydan Hotel which abuts the grandstand and bends around the first turn, as 95 percent of its rooms face onto the track. Fans driving to Meydan from around the United Arab Emirates can wheel right up to the grandstand, which is fronted by a two-tiered indoor parking lot with a 10,000-vehicle capacity.

The only thing missing at Meydan will be betting windows. Dubaians take their racing for the pure sport of it, as betting is illegal in the United Arab Emirates. All of the races in Dubai are funded through the largesse of the ruling Maktoum family, with help from corporate sponsors and funds generated through international simulcast wagering.

Thursday night s card will be the first of 10 dates at this inaugural meeting and features the first round of the Group 3 Maktoum Challenge. Four test races were run on the new synthetic Tapeta surface last Tuesday night, with jockeys and trainers alike singing its praises. Riders Frankie Dettori and Kieren Fallon were among the participants, and both gave the new surface high grades, causing Tapeta s inventor, former trainer Michael Dickinson, to heave a big sigh of relief.

A pessimistic note was cast, however, concerning the turf course. The two turf races originally scheduled for Thursday have been switched to the synthetic surface. The fifth meeting on Feb. 18 will also be all-Tapeta in an effort to keep the new grass surface in prime condition for World Cup Night. In all, just 17 of the 74 races at the first meeting will be run on turf.

There is a strong American perhaps one should say Chicagoan presence at Meydan. The Dubai Racing Club s chief executive, Frank Gabriel, hired Arlington Park s longtime track superintendent, Javier Barajas, to serve the same role at the new track. Barajas brought 33 years of experience with him from Arlington, where he oversaw the installation of its Polytrack surface. Fourteen of those years were spent working under Gabriel.

The track

Meydan replaces Nad Al Sheba, which was razed immediately after the running of the most recent Dubai World Cup last March 28. Nad Al Sheba was a level, left-handed, triangular course with a 1 3/8-mile dirt track similar in composition to Churchill Downs set outside of a 1 1/4-mile turf course. Both courses had 2 1/2-furlong stretches.

While Meydan is left-handed and level, any similarities between it and Nad Al Sheba end there. Meydan is an American-style oval resembling Belmont Park, except that the turf course is set outside the Tapeta synthetic surface.

The turf course is 1 1/2 miles around with a 2 1/4-furlong stretch that extends to form a six-furlong straight course. There is a long chute on the backstretch from which races up to 1 1/4 miles can be run. Imagine Belmont s main track and you will have a good idea of the test offered by the Meydan turf course.

At the same time, the synthetic track resembles Belmont s Widener turf course. It is one-mile and 165 yards around with a stretch measuring two furlongs. There are two chutes on the backstretch, the longest of which forms a dogleg on which races of one mile will be run over a configuration that almost exactly replicates the mile of the Widener Turf Course. The Dubai World Cup will start in midstretch with a 1 1/2-furlong run to the first turn. The UAE Derby, which had been run at 1 1/8 miles, has been lengthened to 1 3/16 miles and will have a slightly shorter run to the first turn.

Beyond the first turn lies the Meydan training track, which consists of a 1 1/8-mile Tapeta surface outside of a 1 1/16-mile turf course.

The installation of a synthetic surface at Meydan signals a sea change for American and European trainers thinking of a tilt at the four big non-turf races on World Cup Night. Horses trained on the synthetic surfaces at Santa Anita and Hollywood may have an advantage over their American rivals from the East Coast, just as they have had at the last two Breeders Cups at Santa Anita. European trainers will be attracted by the new synthetic surface, just as they have been to Santa Anita s Pro-Ride.

British bookmaker Coral reflects the turf-to-synthetic switch in its early prices for the Dubai World Cup, in which it lists the Breeders Cup Classic runner-up Gio Ponti as their 7-2 favorite. Twice Over, third in the BC Classic, is Coral s 6-1 co-second favorite with Vision d Etat, a four-time Group 1 winner at 1 1/4 miles on turf. Others quoted are Sha Tin Group 1 turf winner Presvis at 8-1; Japan Cup winner Vodka (12-1); Japan Cup Dirt winner Espoir City (14-1); Mawatheeq, runner-up to Twice Over in the Champion Stakes (14-1); Goodwood Stakes winner Gitano Hernando (16-1); and Pacific Classic winner Richard s Kid (20-1).