I am used to traveling alone. I went to Stockholm and then to Milan alone for my master’s degree, after which I traveled the world on my own to attend F1 races. My motto at the time was, “If you cannot find good company, go there alone and never miss the opportunity to do something that you want to do”. The same motto took me to Dubai, where I’ll go the year after with Katerina.
Like all great journeys, my first trip to Dubai was inspired by friends’ tales. I was well aware that Dubai was the horse racing mecca, and since I got hooked on the sport by American Pharoah being the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown in 2015, it felt natural to explore this fount of wealth. I was excited by the prospect of getting to see the one horse that beat American Pharoah at Travers Stakes, Keen Ice, compete at the 2016 Dubai World Cup alongside California Chrome and Frosted.
California Chrome’s connections confirmed early that he will come back to the 2016 Dubai World Cup, which is what prompted me to make the journey to Dubai, and the fact Dubai is only 3.5 hours flight from Cyprus.
Every pore of Dubai oozes luxury, which does tend to impress a globetrotting pleasure-seeker such as myself. From dazzling lights to towering skyscrapers, this is a city that thrives on ostentatiousness and even the local police force drives around in cars that belong in the showroom, such as Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Especially around the Dubai airport, you can actually see rows of abandoned luxury cars, including limited edition Ferraris, Bentleys and Porsches that the tireless desert wind mummifies with tiny sand that gets everywhere.
On the outskirts of Dubai, the mighty desert creeps in, inch by inch, moved by relentless screaming winds that want to take back the land they’ve been whipping for countless millennia and drive the impudent human squatters into the sea. And yet, people here seem to love it. This unyielding spirit is something quite remarkable and shows just why Dubai has advanced in the past 20 years from a glorified oil refinery to a major trade and tourism hub. Today, less than 5% of Dubai’s economy comes from oil; most of profit Dubai makes comes through trade and tourism, and it shows.
As if to defy nature itself, Dubai planners have created some of the most remarkable structures in existence, with the goal of outshining even the Wonders of the World. Since 2010, Dubai is home to the tallest man-made building in the world, Burj Khalifa, at 2,717 feet. At the feet of Burj Khalifa is the Dubai Fountain, a massive celebration of abundance of water in this parched desert. The world’s largest shopping mall, which has an underwater aquarium, is right there too and sprawls across Dubai.
Spanning over 5.4 million square feet, the Dubai Mall is perhaps the most visited location in the world, with yearly foot traffic of some 70 million people. For comparison, that’s more than New York’s Central Park and Niagara Falls combined. The Mall houses the Underwater Zoo and Aquarium that dwarf anything Barcelona has to offer. Sharks, stingrays, crocodiles, octopi, squids, and all sorts of sea-faring animals glide above and around the underwater tunnels as bewildered visitors gasp. I have to admit, I was one of them and the Aquarium really impressed me. I could even see professional divers entering the aquarium and swimming with the sharks to feed them. One of the mall exits actually takes you straight to the Fountain, so that’s where I headed next.
Sitting on top of an artificial man-made lake built just for the occasion, the Fountain spans some 1.3 million square feet and cost $218 million to build. The Fountain, illuminated by 6,000 lights and 25 projectors, can spray water up to 500 feet in the air; the nozzles that do so are arranged in patterns synced to music coming out of the speakers all around it. Right next to the Fountain is Burj Khalifa, the most futuristic pyramid the mankind will ever make, with an observation deck called “At the Top” that I visited.
I love heights and the thrill of the wind whistling through my hair. On top of Burj Khalifa I got all the height and the wind I could ever want, alongside a 360-degree view of Dubai. Looking down, you can actually see the pattern in the Fountain below and, especially the night, the entire city lights up. It‘s no accident that Burj Khalifa and the Fountain are made in such a gargantuan scale; all throughout the city, you’ll be given plenty of viewing spots from which you can get a new perspective on these hallmarks. I finally went to visit the Dubai Marina for some relaxation before going to the Meydan racecourse for the World Cup, using the Hop-On Hop-Off buses that let you go anywhere within the city with the same ticket, with the Premium ticket even including passes for the museum and the aquarium.
Dubai Marina is a man-made canal that stretches for two miles along the Dubai shoreline. You can rent jet skis to challenge your friends to a race but since I was alone this time, I just laid back and enjoyed the cruise on a catamaran. Both options provide a different view of Dubai, so if you’re with a significant other, taking the cruise at night offers you a beautiful view of the city when all the buildings are lit, which makes it a great romantic date.
The ultimate highlight of my trip was the 2016 Dubai World Cup, the most expensive horse racing event in the world, where contestants galloped towards the $10 million prize purse. Celebrities, live music and some of the craziest hairdos I’ve ever seen made the event more spectacular but the cherry on top was the fireworks display. The winner in 2016 was California Chrome, the horse that almost won the Triple Crown of racing two years ago.
Horse racing became a big thing in Dubai as the money began flowing in. Horses were no longer just a luxury pet, but a way to generate wealth and interest in the city as a whole. The most fascinating part of this horse racing Olympics is that the very first race, the Dubai Kahayla Classic, is dedicated to purebred Arabian horses, which I’ve yet to see. Known for their speed, endurance, soundness, intelligence and originally bred for combat, these horses can’t match the performance of thoroughbreds, which have the other eight races dedicated to them.
If there’s such a thing as the horse racing Olympics, then Dubai World Cup is it. All the finest specimens from around the world congregate here and compete under the auspices of the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. All the Dubai growth and luxury can be attributed to him, including the Dubai Mall, Fountain, Burj Khalifa and even the Palm and World Islands right off the coast of Dubai, made out of 11 billion cubic feet of sand, rocks and limestone that are visible from space. I didn’t get to visit the Islands, but there’s always another year.
American Pharoah sadly retired on the eve of the 2016 Dubai World Cup, seeing how he was nearing the 3-year cutoff that represents the point where owners start getting antsy about their investment. Race horse performance peaks at about 5 years of age but horse owners will want to protect their investment by only entering those races where they know they have solid chances of winning or not injuring the horse. Winning or placing high in those races increases the horse’s value; injury or dreadful defeat can tank it. The safest option for owners is to have the horse with a winning pedigree start out a new, lucrative career as a stallion, which is what happened to American Pharoah.
A horse that did compete in DWC 2016 and ended up being the runner-up was Mubtaahij, the winner of the 2015 UAE Derby, trained by Bob Baffert and with Drayden Van Dyke as the jockey. The winner was California Chrome, the magnificent horse that shines like gold for the ages.
The night was topped as it deserves – with a sizzle, bang and a flash. After the award ceremony, I got to see a spectacular fireworks show, which started out with an angel-white shower of sparks that exploded into colors that bloomed in the sky above me like ethereal flowers. Orange and purple flares streaked in clusters like neon rockets, fizzling in the distance as they produced a smoke screen criss-crossed by the searchlights. Huge screens all around the racetrack showed the best parts of the fireworks show and let everyone record them in high definition.
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