Meydan is removing Tapeta and installing dirt. The reasons are plentiful, but at the end of the day, while the surface seemed to present some challenges from its installation through the last five years, the driving decisions seem to be rooted elsewhere.
The problem with the Tapeta was that its novelty was faultily combined with the world’s richest horse race, an allegiance that had absolutely no foundation.
Why was the world’s richest race run on dirt for 14 years? That was all they had in Dubai from the start of racing in the early 1990s. When creating a big day, they ran on the surface they had.
When the Dubai World Cup was launched in 1996, there was no turf course at Nad Al Sheba. Keeping grass in tip-top shape in the middle of the desert was not a priority, but as the event grew, so too did interest from all corners of the racing world. The investment in a turf course came later, mostly tied to Dubai’s rapid development and local enhancements in irrigation. It wasn’t until 1998, some seven years after the modern launch of organized racing in the UAE, that a grass race graced the World Cup meeting. Dirt had the head start, and the World Cup’s roots are there.
Several horses with significant turf success in their form were winners in the Dubai World Cup, and as recently as 2006. That’s about 3,000 24-hour news cycles ago – you are forgiven if it feels like an eternity. Singspiel took the race in 1997 for Sir Michael Stoute, followed by Almutawakel and Dubai Millennium’s double in 1999 and 2000. Moon Ballad landed the spoils in 2003 and Electrocutionist in 2006. For those counting at home, that’s five winners from 14 dirt runnings to have wins or placings in Group 1 turf races before their World Cup tally. Curlin added a Grade 1 turf placing after his World Cup win.
Away from the dirt beginning in 2010, the Dubai World Cup was losing its overall global significance specifically because of the surface, and that creep was impacting other races at the meeting.
Americans steeped in dirt racing tradition, and frequent visitors to the Dubai World Cup, curtailed their visits, and the new surface for the expensive race led others to consider a switch. Some very good European turf horses occasionally ducked what they might’ve viewed as a very tough assignment on grass in favor of a bigger purse, and perhaps a better chance, to win. In one way, connections were compensated for taking a chance in the big race, but the cost was leaving some lesser quality in the turf races.
The World Cup, more or less, became a race for turf horses, all-weather specialists, and the occasional dirt horse. Just 10 of the 105 top performances from the 2013 Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings came on all-weather surfaces, with 28 of them on dirt. The majority of the world’s quality races are on grass. With two wealthy and well-respected $5 million turf races (to be $6 million in 2015) on the card, what exactly was the point of having another race attracting more turf horses and mixing them with the likes of all-weather junkies from recent years, including Cat O’Mountain, Kassiano, Capponi, and Allybar?
While Akeed Mofeed and Military Attack, two of the best turf horses to emerge recently from Hong Kong, along with Derby winner Ruler Of The World taking a chance in the Dubai World Cup, it allowed overmatched horses like Festive Cheer, nothing more than a maiden winner, to fill the Dubai Sheema Classic, or mere handicap winner Educate a shot to run in the Dubai Duty Free. Surely, the Dubai Racing Club has the option to go with smaller fields and not invite these fillers. But they didn’t do that, and overall quality suffered.
Meydan’s decision to switch to dirt will reinstitute the quality of the Dubai World Cup and will likely bolster both the turf-based Dubai Duty Free and Dubai Sheema Classic. Ancillary benefits also fall to the breeding side of the business too. Have you heard about the fights over getting a chance to breed to Monterosso in Japan? No? You get the point.
Recreating a strong dirt race obviously benefits both North and South American racing more than European racing. Euro-stammering about the decision to switch to dirt, relative to the World Cup itself, is almost comical considering the general lack of quality and respect all-weather racing receives with only a handful of exceptions. The Saudis, who have increased the profile of the horses they’ve been importing, and running over dirt in Riyadh, could see some more immediate benefits too.
What is a greater question is the impact of dirt on the Dubai World Cup Carnival. Roughly half of all races run at the Carnival have been contested on Tapeta, and there have been many international shippers who gave the all-weather a chance during their local visits. With five years of cover, there seems no reason to think more turf racing couldn’t happen during the Carnival to meet the needs of European visitors during the prelude to the big night. Equilibrium in racing is too often ignored, but one has to think the organizers of the Carnival will do their best to take the Carnival supply and meet demand where it exists, mindful of its strong Euro interest.
The biggest pressure is now on the dirt lovers to actually show-up and recapture the glory of the Dubai World Cup on a natural surface. All that is left is for the 2015 season to arrive. Meydan is re-building it – will “they” come? There are still $10 million reasons to do so.