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The Dubai World Cup was created with the lofty ambition of becoming the definitive thoroughbred championship of the world. A race that every proud horse owner around the world would desire to win.

This was the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. His idea of the Dubai World Cup was born in the early nineties. That was when flat racing in Dubai under the UAE Equestrian & Racing Federation was beginning to gain attention worldwide.

Sheikh Mohammed rallied a team that featured the late great Michael Osborne, chief organiser Nancy Petch, Dubai Racing Club Chairman Ali Khamis Al Jafleh, Brough Scott, Nick Clark, Lord John Fitzgerald and Yasir Mabrouk to formulate plans for the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup.

And like all successful events, the planning, professionalism and communication that the Dubai World Cup team brought to the table led to the staging of the historic first race in 1996 at the Nad Al Sheba Racecourse.

Sheikh Mohammed was closely involved in the planning and urged his team to aim for the skies and ensure that the inaugural race would have a massive impact on the sport by featuring the best horses and jockeys. And the highest prize money at the time, which was $4 million.

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The world of horse racing boasted several iconic races like the Epsom Derby, Prix de la Arc de Triomphe, the Kentucky Derby, Melbourne Cup, the Japan Cup, and it was Sheikh Mohammad’s vision that the Dubai World Cup would be accepted into this elite group.

And it was, almost instantly, when the 1996 race produced one of the greatest races the sport had seen with the legendary Cigar and Soul Of The Matter treating fans to a thrill-a-minute race.

The jury was out and swiftly declared the Dubai World Cup one of the great races of the thoroughbred racing world.

But what makes a great race, or a race great?

Several things, on several levels.

The standard at which it is conducted and staged, and the quality of horses it attracts. The inaugural Dubai World Cup ticked all the right boxes and earned its place alongside the most famous races in the world.

Legendary horses

The next step was to grow the race and ensure that it became the definitive thoroughbred event in the world. One that would crown a true world champion each March in Dubai.

History will reveal that the race has been won by some of the most legendary horses that the sport has ever seen — from Cigar and Silver Charm to Dubai Millennium and Arrogate.

There have been winners from all corners of the globe and horses that have been bred in different jurisdictions. They came from America, France, Ireland, Germany, Japan, South America, Asia and Australia. All hoping to claim a piece of racing history in Dubai.

25th anniversary

More history will be made on Saturday, March 27, 2021, when the Meydan Racecourse hosts the 25th anniversary of the Dubai World Cup, a milestone that will make its creator and biggest patron, Sheikh Mohammed, a very proud man. And also add another feature to Dubai’s prestigious sporting cap.

Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata/Gulf News

Three races that defined the Dubai World Cup

Jockey Jerry Bailey celebrates after steering Cigar to victory in the inaugural Dubai World Cup race at Nad Al Sheba, Dubai, on March 27, 1996. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

1996: Cigar beats Soul Of The Matter in a thriller

The race could not have hoped for a better introduction on the international stage. Two American superstars, Cigar and Soul Of The Matter, were engaged in an epic battle that had an audience of over 60,000 on their feet, screaming their hearts out.

Cigar was in the midst of a sequence of races that included a runaway victory in the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Once the gates flew open for the start of the $4million contest at Nad Al Sheba racecourse, jockey Jerry Bailey position Cigar just behind L’Carriere and Tamayaz. After being asked to step up the tempo, Cigar loomed large as the field entered the home straight and looked poised for another easy victory. However, Soul Of The Matter began to cut Cigar’s lead, and at the 200m mark, it appeared that Cigar had a battle on his hands. But he proved his greatness when digging deep to hold off Soul Of The Matter by a narrow half a length.

It was an instant Classic.

Sheikh Mohammed Dubai Millennium
Sheikh Mohammed pats Dubai Millennium after winning the Dubai World Cup race at the Nad Al Sheba Racecourse in Dubai, on February 2, 2002. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

2000: Dubai Millennium sets a record

Dubai Millennium is perhaps the most famous winner of the Dubai World Cup. His is a fairy tale. He was named with the hope of winning the great race, and Dubai Millennium did not disappoint.

It was a victory that was meant to be. Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Dubai Millennium broke from barrier 11 and stormed into a prominent position. He led, as he did when winning the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes as a three-year-old at Ascot, delivering a performance of total dominance.

When you consider his high-class rivals, Dubai Millennium’s performance looks even more impressive as he drew clear in the straight to win by six lengths from the American challenger Behrens

With a career record of nine wins in ten outings, there was no doubt that Dubai Millennium was a class act. Dettori would later describe him as one of the best horses he had ridden.

His winning time of 1:69.50 seconds is a record at Nad Al Sheba racecourse.

Thunder Snow 2018
Thunder Snow and West Coast grab the early lead in the 2018 Dubai World race at the Meydan racecourse in Dubai. Thunder Snow won in 2019 also, becoming the first horse to win the Dubai World Cup twice. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

2019: Thunder Snow makes history

Two decades after Cigar’s iconic victory in the race, Thunder Snow, a horse trained in Dubai by Emirati handler Saeed Bin Surour, would carve his place in the history books when becoming the first dual winner.

No horse had ever achieved the feat, although many had tried. But Thunder Snow, who saved his best for the Meydan dirt track, was unbeatable on the surface.

A total of 13 horses were in the race, including Al Maktoum Challenge winners North America (Rounds 1 and 2) and Capezzano (Round 3), Pegasus World Cup runner-up Seeking The Soul, Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Gunnevera, and the highly-regarded Gronkowski.

With multiple French champion Christophe Soumillion on the saddle for the second year running, Thunder Snow looked picture perfect in the preliminaries, although his trainer Bin Surour, was feeling the pressure in his bid to make Dubai World Cup history.

As Gronkowski got the first run, Thunder Snow threw down the gauntlet and mounted a strong challenge. The pair drew clear and battled all the way to the line, with Thunder Snow winning by a nose in a photo finish.

Three outstanding riding performances

2017_Mike Smith_Arrogate
Mike Smith pilots Arrogate to victory in the Dubai World Cup race at the Meydan racecourse on March 25, 2017. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

2017: Mike Smith turns adversity into triumph

Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith has delivered some outstanding performances during his glittering career, but perhaps none can surpass the ride on Arrogate to win the Dubai World Cup in 2017.

Smith, who was continuing his partnership with the Bob Baffert-Arrogate combo, had to overcome a nightmarish start before getting his horse to run the race of his life at Meydan racecourse.

Soon after the gates flew open, Arrogate appeared to squat down as he was startled by the sound of the gates. He lunged forward awkwardly and was out of balance. Barely had he recovered, he got bumped hard on both sides and found himself dead last in the 14-horse field.

But Smith is a ‘cool-hand-Luke’ and veteran of many battles that did not go his way. The American great never panicked aboard the champion 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song and instead opted to ride him wide to give him a clear trip all the way around the field. The tactics paid big dividends as Arrogate began to gallop strongly and finished 2 1/4 lengths in front of Gun Runner, with Neolithic completing an American trifecta at the top of the world’s second-richest race.

After the race, an emotional Bob Baffert lauded the efforts of both Arrogate and Smith

“When he missed the break, I gave him no chance at all,” Baffert said. “That’s the greatest horse I’ve ever seen run. I can’t believe he won. That is a great horse right there… and what a ride by Mike!”

Jerry Bailey_Cigar_1996
Jockey Jerry Bailey steers Cigar past Soul Of The Matter to win the inaugural Dubai World Cup race at Nad Al Sheba, Dubai, on March 27, 1996. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

1996: Bailey beats Stevens in an epic finish

You can’t help but go back to the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup when you talk of extraordinary riding performances from two great jockeys – Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens.

At that time, both were at the peak of their powers, and they showed just why when exhibiting top-class riding at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse.

Bailey and Cigar took the lead a quarter of a mile from the finish and appeared to have put the race to bed. But Stevens and Soul Of The Matter had other plans, as they took the fight to the American great and forced him to run the race of his life.

Bailey too was challenged by Stevens as the two horses raced toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball for over a furlong to the finish. It must have felt like the longest distance for both jockeys who dug deep into their resources and repertoire of skills to claim a slice of history as the first winner of the Dubai World Cup.

In the end, it was Bailey who won the duel with Stevens as Cigar proved his greatness by holding off the persistent Soul Of The Matter for a half-length victory.

2016: Even a saddle slip can’t deny Espinoza

California Chrome returned to Dubai to attend to some unfinished business, having lost to Prince Bishop the previous year. The five-year-old chestnut horse, trained in the United States by Art Sherman, was ridden by Victor Espinoza to victory over South African raider Mubtaahij.

But it was not as simple as that.

While California Chrome’s victory was the first in the race for his jockey, Espinoza had to endure a nightmare of a race as his saddle kept slipping badly in the deep stretch. It compromised Espinoza’s uncanny ability to stay on board, but with the help of a willing partner — the highest-earning North American racehorse in history — he completed an incredible victory.

And not only did California Chrome win, but he also set a new track record for 2,000 metres at the Meydan Racecourse.

You don’t need to be an expert to realise that the saddle-slipping situation could have led to a disaster, but that’s what makes a jockey great.

Three unforgettable years

Sheikh Mohammed with Singspiel, which won the Dubai World Cup race on April 3, 1997. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

1997: A rainy interlude and sweet victory

Rains are more than welcome in the Middle East, but not when something big is happening, like the Dubai World Cup.

But it poured in 1997, on the day when the Nad Al Sheba Racecourse was all dressed up to host the second running a race that had captured the world attention following a phenomenal first meeting the previous year.

Barely had everyone digested their lunch, the skies opened, making people run for cover. The optimists were hopeful that it would only be a passing shower and that order would be restored in time for the first race, the Dubai Kahayla Classic.

However, it was not to be. There was no let-up by the afternoon as Nad Al Sheba became increasingly waterlogged. The Dubai Racing Club called off the first four races with hopes that the Dubai Duty Free and Dubai World Cup could take place should the weather improve.

It did not. And then came that now-famous moment when Sheikh Mohammed walked onto the waterlogged racetrack, looked at the damage and ran his hands across his throat, signalling the end.

Given Sheikh Mohammed’s resilience, everybody was in for a big surprise. Sheikh Mohammed called an emergency meeting with trainers and organisers and announced that the event would be staged the following Thursday.

The guests and all connections cheered his determination, and Sheikh Mohammed was duly rewarded when Singspiel, a horse he bred and owned, won the Dubai World Cup.

Jockey Mickael Barzalona rides Monterosso to a win in the 2012 Dubai World Cup race at Meydan. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

2012: Barzalona’s antics in the saddle

The 2012 Dubai World Cup produced a shock result when a 20-1 outsider beat a strong field to become Godolphin’s fifth winner of the race.

Ridden by tiny French rider Mickael Barzalona, Monterosso was a three-length winner over the more fancied stable companion, Capponi, with the British-trained Planteur half a length back in third. The ante-post favourite So You Think finished fourth of the 13 runners.

But that was no all. Racegoers, who were applauding the victory, were given the shock of their lives when Barzalona decided to celebrate by performing a dangerous stunt by standing up high in his stirrups, like a professional stunt rider, even before Monterosso crossed the finish line.

Trick riders are known to perform dangerous stunts like standing upright on the back of a galloping horse, but here was a young jockey exhibiting his balancing skills that took everyone’s breath away.


Captain Steve 2001
Captain Steve, ridden by Jerry Bailey, coasts to victory in Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba, Dubai, on March 24, 2001. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

2001: Captain Steve, and the story behind the name

The sixth running of the race was won by Captain Steve, a horse that became part of American racing folklore. The four-year-old chestnut colt was trained in the United States by Bob Baffert and ridden by Jerry Bailey, who won the race for the third time.

But the actual show-stealer was a man, who the horse was named after: Captain Steve. The colt got the name after an incident at the airport where a policeman named Captain Steve Thompson helped owner Mike Pegram get out of a sticky situation when a firearm was found in his baggage.

Thompson, a member of the Louisville Police Department in Kentucky, travelled with Pegram and Baffert to Dubai, where he was as much a star and made more friends than he can remember.

Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata/Gulf News