Dubai: Sports Playground for the Ultra-Rich

Four races into the card, the opening ceremonies begin. Fireworks burst. A trained horse trots onto the course, its saddle erupting into flames and sparks. A giant air compressor blows men aloft so they appear to fly. Arabian horses gallop across a movie screen stretching at least 50 yards across. A man riding an inflated horse sails over the track on a paraglider, a virtual Pegasus.

Dubai might not be in line to host the Olympics for another decade at least, but as a veteran of seven Olympics (including Yoko Ono "singing" in Torino) I can say this: It's ready to hold the opening ceremonies.

"Sheikh Mohammed's dream was to bring the best horses in the world together on one night and see who is No. 1," jockey legend and ABC broadcaster Jerry Bailey says. "And I think he's done that. He's spared no expense."

The World Cup feature race begins at 9:30 p.m.. The $6 million prize is enticing, but the presence of Sheikh Hamdan's Invasor and the only horse it has ever lost to, Godolphin's Discreet Cat, intimidates all but five other horses from even entering the race. It's the smallest field for the World Cup since the race started in 1996. The horses enter the starting gate and suddenly they're off. Discreet Cat gets boxed in along the rail early and jockey Frankie Dettori can't move up. As they enter the final stretch, Premium Tap has the lead but is unable to hold off the fast-closing Invasor, who goes on to win by almost two lengths. Discreet Cat finishes last.

Sheikh Mohammed must be disappointed, but he hides it well while presenting his brother with the World Cup trophy for Invasor's win.

"Winning the Breeder's Cup was great, but on a personal level, this win is more valuable to me, to be able to win the race here in this country for Sheikh Hamdan," McLaughlin says later. "What do you give a guy who already has everything?"

A good question, and here's another: Could tiny Dubai provide a model not just for sports but for the Middle East's future? After all, Qatar, a neighboring country facing a similar oil depletion, is following the sports model and also wants to host the Olympics.

Or is all this just a pipe dream as artificial as Ski Dubai? You might, after all, be able to blast enough air conditioning into a shopping mall to create a ski slope, but when you finish your run and your fondue, you're still in the desert in a region where people are willing to blow themselves up for their religious and national beliefs. Dubai may sculpt its own global image, and it can hire as many cheap foreign workers as it wants to haul as many tons of rock as possible into the Persian Gulf, but The World those man-made islands form will still be completely artificial.

For crying out loud, Dubai might be relatively open and Western, but how could it possibly host the Olympics if Israeli citizens are currently denied entry as a matter of official government policy?

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