"It's un-bee-lievable," Peter Vitulli, the New Yorker who co-owns the thoroughbred Nightmare Affair, says of the facilities at Nad Al Sheba. "You can't smell a horse in the shed rows. You can't smell anything. If someone blindfolded you and you walked through the shed row, you wouldn't know what it was. There aren't even flies. The barn door opening has these tall screens that keep the flies out. Each horse has a little spray bottle and they get sprayed four times a day with a repellent. It's great to see the horses treated like that. They're not bothered by anything. The stalls are 15-by-15 with 30-foot ceilings. And a skylight. And air conditioning. They have air conditioning! The floors are painted. The walls are white.
"Trust me when I tell you, I've stayed in places that aren't as nice as the stalls."
Horse racing is the passion of Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Sheikh Hamdan. They learned horsemanship as young boys in the 1950s -- Mohammed excelled as an endurance rider -- and they are major players in the sport. In 1994 Mohammed started Godolphin Stables, named for one of the three Arabian horses from which modern thoroughbreds descend, and its horses have won more than 130 Group 1 races. Godolphin has training facilities all over the world, including 4,000 acres in Kentucky. Sheikh Mohammed, who recently bought the stud rights to Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, reportedly has spent $1.5 billion on horses.
"You're working with really high-quality people," says Kieran McLaughlin, the trainer for Invasor. "They don't get into second-guessing. They have a very good idea of what's going on. They understand bad news is part of the sport as well as good news."
"A love for horses runs in my blood," Sheikh Mohammed wrote for his Web site. "Don't forget that horses have been bred for centuries by Arabic tribes, they were used for hunting and fighting and they symbolize our history. Horse riding is more than merely sitting on a horse's back. It is nobility and chivalry."
Sheikh Mohammed's image -- his finely trimmed black beard, piercing dark eyes and traditional Arab headscarf -- is everywhere in Dubai, from a gigantic mural covering the side of at least one building to windshield sunshades protecting cars from the sun's intense rays. The third of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum's four sons, Sheikh Mohammed was born in 1949 when Dubai was a mere trading village, known for its pearl diving industry … if it was known for anything at all. That changed after Dubai gained its independence from Great Britain part of the UAE in the early '70s. The discovery of oil made the royal family rich, but Al Maktoum saw beyond the oil and laid the foundation for turning Dubai into a modern city-state. He created an inviting economic climate that would attract and grow business, a strategy Mohammed has expanded.
Dubai is Muslim, but its liberal laws allow the sale of alcohol in hotels, women are free to dress in Western (though modest) clothing and English is more widely spoken than Arabic. It is an oasis of Western life in a very turbulent region. "In Dubai, nobody talks about politics," says Abdullah bin Suwaidan, deputy manager of Inward Missions. "Everybody talks about money."