Jockey Jerry Bailey and Cigar win the Dubai World Cup in 1996 ahead of Soul Of The Matter Image Credit: Gulf News Archives
Dubai World Cup 2020 is celebrating 25 years
Dubai World Cup 2020 is celebrating 25 years Image Credit: DWC

Dubai: It seems like it was only yesterday that a horse race of epic proportions just blew me away and changed my life forever.

It was in fact the evening of March 26, 1996 when I was fortunate to be standing close to the stand side rails at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse to witness history in the making.

The occasion — the first running of the Dubai World Cup, a 2,000 metre dirt race that would instantly capture the attention of the world.

Nad Al Sheba was the quintessential sporting theatre, a majestic venue bathed in glowing floodlights and pumped up by a electrifying atmosphere thanks to over 50,000 screaming fans; young and old, men and women.

There was I, after having written dozens of articles and interviews in the build up to the historic day, revelling in my vantage position and waiting excitedly for the action to explode.

Cigar edges ahead at the line

And explode it did.

The race itself lasts just over two minutes, but this one seemed to go on forever. At least I wanted it to never end.

It was exhilarating, entertaining and engaging.

Cigar, the all-conquering American champion, was the big favourite to see off his 10 rivals and win the $4 million contest.

Every winner of the Dubai World Cup

Not without reason, he was a two-time Horse of the Year winner who boasted a 16-race winning streak, which until now is still considered one of flat racing’s greatest achievements.

And win he did. But not without a fight, a dogfight with another American superstar, Soul Of The Matter.

Coming into the home stretch, I picked Cigar out running wide and looking every inch the superstar that he was. His jockey, the great Jerry Bailey — who has won close to 6,000 races and over $300 million in prize money — was doing what he does best, pushing and willing his horse to change into top gear and find that extra bit that always determines success over failure.

Then for a heart-stopping moment, it looked that this could be Cigar’s fait accompli as Gary Stevens and Soul Of The Matter threw down the gauntlet.

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Jerry Bailey was delighted to win the first Dubai World Cup

The winning post looked like it was coming too fast as both horses and their riders extended every sinew, every nerve, every vein, every heartbeat in the quest of making history.

I watched, my fists clenched so hard that it would later hurt, as Cigar and Soul Of The Matter thundered down the dusty home stretch and flashed past the finish in a blur.

A deafening roar hit the night sky and everything slipped into slow motion. Had Cigar pulled it out of the irons?

And then came the announcement … and the rest is history.

It made sense to me that Cigar was once described as being “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable”.

Fast-forward 25 years to this month’s 25th running of the Dubai World Cup, and the memory of that momentous race still remains fresh in my mind.

For the record, Emirati handler Saeed Bin Surour entered four horses with Tamayaz finishing best of the quartet in fifth position, with Torrential in eighth, Larrocha in ninth and Halling in 11th place.