Jockey Jerry Bailey rides Cigar to win the Dubai World Cup in 1996 Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: In my four unforgettable decades as a journalist I can proudly say that I’ve done some amazing things that most writers only dream about.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and interview some of the greatest sportsmen from Muhammad Ali to Viv Richards and Tiger Woods to Roger Federer. I’ve also attended top events in tennis, golf, cricket, football, rugby and more.

Gulf News' Leslie Wilson at the Dubai World Cup
Gulf News' Leslie Wilson at the Dubai World Cup Image Credit: Supplied

But if there’s one sport, and event, that has given me more satisfaction than others, it is horse racing and the Dubai World Cup which will be celebrating a landmark 25 years on Saturday, March 27.

I have had the absolute pleasure of being there at every single race meeting dating back to 1996 when the great race was first run at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse right up to its transition to the iconic Meydan Racecourse in 2000.

What an enriching and life-changing experience it has been. My earliest memories date back to the early 1990s when the sport became a part of my beat that also included tennis, golf, snooker, squash and motorsport.

Although horse racing in Dubai dated back to 1981 when races were held at a camel racetrack near the Metropolitan Hotel featuring thoroughbred races over a mile and a sprint. These races were organised by the Office of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

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

Obviously this was before I had come to work and live in the UAE, which was in 1991.

Coinciding with my arrival I would learn that the Dubai Racing Club was established under the chairmanship of a delightful Emirati gentleman, Colonel Ali Khamis Al Jaflesh, a UAE Air Force Commander.

In March 1992, Nad Al Sheba Racecourse was officially inaugurated and saw some of horse racing’s biggest stars at the time — jockeys such as the legendary Lester Piggott and Willie Carson.

A year later, in March 1993 Nad Al Sheba Racecourse hosted the inaugural Dubai International Jockeys’ Challenge (DIJC). And that event would pave the way for the establishment of the Dubai World Cup a few years later.

I think it was some time in 1995 that I first heard that a major thoroughbred race would be staged in Dubai. Intuitively I knew that something big was in the works. This was Dubai after all. What I didn’t know was that it would be colossal.

Having witnessed Dubai launch the Class 1 World Powerboat Championships, an event widely regarded as the pinnacle of international offshore powerboat racing, and a year later the ATP Tour’s Dubai Tennis Championships, I understood the enormity of what was rapidly gathering force in the world of horse racing under the driving force and extraordinary vision of Sheikh Mohammad.

Sheikh Mohammad celebrates Monterosso's victory in the Dubai World Cup

Sheikh Mohammad’s desire to think outside the box and into the future was fuelled by this friendship with the late Doctor Michael Osborne, who was synonymous with the development of flat racing in Britain.

Osborne was commissioned to head the core team that began to draw up plans for the Dubai World Cup together with Ali Khamis Al Jafleh, Chairman of the Dubai Racing Club, his right-hand man Ali Belhab, Khalifa Bin Dasmal, Lord John Fitzgerald, CEO of the Dubai Racing Club, well-known British racing journalist, radio and television presenter and former jockey Brough Scott, chief coordinator Nancy Petch, the IRB’s Nick Clarke and Alistair Donald, and the go-to man and racing pioneer Yasir Mabrouk,

As they say the rest is history as the first running of the Dubai World Cup was held in 1996 and would be won by the world’s best dirt horse, Cigar.

It was a exhilarating race and I was thrilled to pieces to able to pen to paper to tell the world what Dubai was capable of.

I would witness subsequent runnings of the race won by some of horse racing’s legends, Silver Charm, Dubai Millennium, Captain Steve, Street Cry, Curlin, Electrocutionist, Animal Kingdom, Well Armed, California Chrome, Arrogate and Thunder Snow.

These great horse contributed to the appeal and evolution of flat racing in the UAE, which I have been very fortunate to be involved in, from the beginning.

What an incredible journey it has been for me and Gulf News, the paper that I have worked for since 1991.