03/22/2010 11:00PM

World Cup's new home a stunner

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Andrew Watkins
Deem gets ready for the Dubai Sheema Classic on the Meydan turf course, which, at 30 meters wide, can be split into separate courses.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - A small army of construction workers scurried about the massive grandstand of the new Meydan racecourse earlier this week, completing last-minute projects for Saturday's Dubai World Cup program, the focus of the annual racing season in this Persian Gulf country.

The cost of the gigantic track, which opened its first race meeting in late January, has not been disclosed. Construction was launched in 2007 by Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and owner of the powerful Godolphin Racing stable, and even he must shake his head in amazement at the size of new track.

"It would be 22 747's in a row, wing to wing," said Frank Gabriel, the former Arlington Park racing executive who is chief executive officer of Dubai Racing Club, which conducts racing at Meydan. "That's how long it is. You can't describe the size of it."

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The 10-story grandstand extends for a kilometer, or six-tenths of a mile, and the clubhouse turn is adjacent to a five-star hotel that opened earlier this month. The facility covers 76 million square feet with enough roof space to cover 27 tennis courts. The infield television is approximately 353 feet long and 37 feet high.

"The hotel is the unique factor," Gabriel said. "The experience of coming out onto the balcony of a room and looking head on down the stretch is pretty amazing."

The only thing that rivals the track on the local horizon is Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 feet, which opened in January. The Burj Khalifa, and the rest of the Dubai skyline, are easily visible from the back of the racecourse.

The entire facility took less than three years to complete, with construction of the racing surfaces starting last spring after the 2009 Dubai World Cup and the demolition of the track it replaced, Nad Al Sheba. The new track is about a half-mile to the west of the old venue.

Crews have been completing construction projects since the track opened on Jan. 28 for the Dubai Racing Carnival. Tuesday, the sounds of saws and hammers filled the air. The Dubai World Cup will be track's 10th day of racing.

"We'll have the majority of the place ready," Gabriel said.

The saddling enclosure, which is behind the grandstand, was built to accommodate other events, such as seating for a 1,500-person dinner, concerts, and car shows. It looks large enough for an American football field.

The course layouts are similar to the layouts at Woodbine. Meydan has a turf course on the outside of a synthetic track. The turf course is 2,400 meters, or approximately 1 1/2 miles in circumference, with a six-furlong chute. The Tapeta synthetic track is 1,750 meters, or about 1 1/8 miles. The turf course has a stretch run of about five-sixteenths of a mile, while the synthetic track has a stretch run slightly longer than a quarter-mile. Those distances are longer than at most American tracks, but shorter than most European courses.

Terry Spargo, the track announcer who came to Dubai from Australia, said that the Tapeta surface has been similar to a turf race in the way that races unfold.

"The pattern of racing is very similar to grass," he said. "The winners come from anywhere."

The turf course has a width of 30 meters, large enough for the temporary rails to be placed 15 meters from the inside. The inside portion will be used for the first time on Saturday.

"It's like having two turf courses," Spargo said.

Michael Dickinson, the former Maryland-based trainer who founded Tapeta Footings, has been in Dubai for the winter, overseeing the maintenance of the track. Dickinson has Tapeta synthetic tracks at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. He considers Meydan to be his finest surface, in part because he has learned from the earlier projects.

"We have three years on the technology side," he said.

All of that will be on display for an expected crowd of 50,000 on Saturday, Gabriel said, and a curious international television audience. In coming years, Meydan will be the subject of more construction. A business park, homes, and a shopping mall are planned.