I was in the commentary box before the new, vibrant racecourse went up. It was small – a bit like something at Sedgefield or somewhere – and to get to the paddock you had to go through the royal box. One day I passed Sheikh Mohammed sitting in the front row. I said, “Hello sir, how are you?” and he gestured at me to sit down. Then he asked me: “How about this… I’m think of starting the world’s richest race. What distance shall we do?” I said, “Well, sir, it’s got to be 1m ¼, to bring the best milers and longer distance horses together”. And that’s how the World Cup started... we’ve had some incredible races since.
One edition I’ll never forget was Dubai Millennium, winning in Millennium year. He was owned by Godolphin and ridden by Frankie Dettori, who was so energetic arriving in the winners’ enclosure. I did the commentary on the very first race, too, and I remember Cigar’s victory in that race, back in 1996. And then I remember interviewing an American guy who’d come over for the Cup one year. He’d brought his wife along, and I interviewed them both in the winners’ enclosure. I asked him what he did back in America. He just said… “Well, I own Budweiser.” “Er, right!” I replied. But that really proved the World Cup is a race that attracts all sorts of people from all over the world.
The old racecourse was charming, but the new racecourse is stunning. It’s the world’s biggest grandstand. So, if you think Ascot is big, wait until you see Meydan. The building is about 4 ½ furlongs long and six stories high, so it takes a while to walk its length. The real beauty of it, though, is that there’s a hotel at the end of the grandstand. They sometimes train horses out on the track. And when they do, you’re woken up at 4:30am when the floodlights go on (the horses come out to be exercised early, as it’ll get too hot later in the day). Go out on the balcony, then head down and see them on the track. I remember when I first looked out thirty years ago, and it was desert. In fact, you had to cross the desert to get to the track. Now, it’s like New York. But bigger!
I went over initially thanks to the late Sir Henry Cecil. We were having dinner at his home on Warren Hill. He suddenly asked me whether I’d been to Dubai. I said I hadn’t, so he phoned Sheikh Mohammed. “OK,” he said, putting the phone down, “you’re off next week.” So, I flew over, and I went to the palace to meet the Sheikh. His Highness stood up, told me to come over, and we talked for about an hour about how we could promote Dubai’s racing round the world. He liked what I suggested. “Do it,” he said, and ever since the Al-Maktoum family have been behind racing 100 per cent, using their studs around the world (including over here in the UK and Ireland). It’s great employment, particularly for Godolphin’s trainers: Charlie Appleby and Saeed bin Suroor. Charlie goes to Dubai once or twice a week, Suroor has never taken a day off.
I remember meeting Suroor for the first time. I was in a stable with Sheikh Mohammed and Simon Crisford. This guy walked in, and Sheikh Mohammed said, “Derek, I’d like you to meet Saeed bin Suroor. He’s going to be my trainer.” Anyway, it turned out he spoke no English, and I was the person tasked with teaching him. To this day, we still joke about how his English is bad because of me! But, you know, there’s something for everyone in Dubai. Go there for racing or go there for a holiday. But if you go for a holiday… go racing all the same!