Between November and March every year, the Jebel Ali Racecourse in Dubai plays host to rip-roaring horse races that are as much about winning and losing as they are about catching up with friends on inviting grass expanses. Text & Photographs by Mriganka Kalita
It might have been only a handful of horses; seven to be precise. Nothing compared to the guttural roar of hundreds packed in a V8 engine. But as steel-tipped hooves pounded into the soft earth, leaving clumps of soil flying through the air and emitting a low but ferocious rumble, it was hard not to feel an immense primaeval power. The horses thundered past, manes flying, leashes straining, muscles rippling. In a flash, the first race of the day was over at the Jebel Ali Racecourse (emiratesracing.com) in Dubai. A ripple of excitement coursed through the crowd. The races had begun.
Built in 1990, the 2,200-metre-long racecourse is laid out in the shape of a horseshoe. This innovative thought process extends to the track surface, which was made by mixing desert sand with recycled engine oil sourced from shipyards. This composition makes it easy to maintain, and its uphill European-style finish is kinder on the legs of the horses.
The Jebel Ali Racecourse is the perfect place to experience a slice of Dubai that trots merrily away from the brunch and beach weekend cliches. The sprawling complex ensconced in a green oasis has VIP, private, and public viewing areas. Watching races here is a bit of an intimate affair. Everybody seems to know one another. Families come prepared with overstuffed picnic hampers. Friends shoot the breeze while making notes of their favourites. Young boys and girls do what they do best: scamper around squealing with laughter. The spirit of camaraderie and the environs, sandpapered by time, make one traipse down nostalgia lane to a simpler time.
As racegoers enter the complex through an underpass clutching aforementioned picnic hampers, camping chairs, and wriggly children, they are faced with a bit of a dilemma. Heading to the stands means they get a great view of the races. Moreover, the roof above shades them from the glare of the scorching sun. But the undulating and rather inviting grassy expanse means after the delicacies are transferred from the picnic baskets to their bellies, a quick snooze between races becomes a distinct possibility. One can also saunter to the railing next to the track and watch the horses whizz past, while also cheering for the favoured one—an act described by racing veterans as good for the horses’ morale.
Of course, the VVIP pass holders can head up straight to the private corporate boxes, located at the highest level of the stadium. This is where the finest of gourmet cuisine, served on embossed bone china by a Jeeves or two lurking discreetly, awaits them. It’d be safe to assume that they don’t have many objections regarding their space. For the rest, there are stalls that sell everything from traditional Emirati delicacies such as luqaimat (a sweet dumpling) soaked in a syrupy liquid to shawarma stuffed with delicately spiced chicken. Add burgers and pizzas to the mix, and yes, cups of strong black tea. Passionate discussions on races and life are incomplete without a steaming cup by the side.
The Jebel Ali Racecourse holds races every fortnight during the racing season—between November and March every year. These are the pleasant months of cool breezes and happy outings. The carnival-like atmosphere attracts people from all walks of life who look forward to a fun afternoon. In the midst of the bonhomie, jockeys with focussed faces and magnificent steeds with flowing manes pummel the track at regular intervals as squeals of joy and groans of disappointment fill the air.
A different side of Dubai? You bet.