It is 26 years since Doug Watson arrived in the UAE as a young groom looking to make his way into the world of racing.
His initial plan was to stay for a year to sample life in Dubai before moving back to Ohio.
Twenty-six years on and Watson is still here, using his same magic touch at the Red Stables in Al Quoz.
The American handler oversees 100 horses on a daily basis and holds the same passion and hunger for the sport after nearly three decades in the Emirates.
He’s seen many good and bad days during his time in Dubai, but has enjoyed tremendous success all the same, winning six UAE trainers’ titles, as well as over 500 races.
“It’s amazing working for the Maktoum family. Every day I pinch myself, thinking from where I started to being able to train for one of the best racing families,” he said.
Since taking over for head trainer Kiaran McLaughlin in 2004, Watson and his assistant Noel Connolly carry out tireless work along with their team at the stables to ensure the horses are healthy and training to the best of their ability.
“We have great head men here who take care of 20 horses each. If they see something, they tell myself and Noel on the walkie talkies and we check them. Noel has been unbelievable,” he said.
Many memories filter through his head as World Cup night approaches again, from Cigar’s victory in the maiden race in 1996 to Dubai Millennium’s famous triumph in 2000. For all the smiles filling his face when he reflects on UAE racing’s marquee night, it’s the former which remains his personal highlight.
“It was a smaller community back in 1996. They needed us all to do a job on the night. I had to drive the horse ambulance. Nothing happened thankfully,” Watson recalls.
“I watched the race in the vet room, thinking to myself about how having Cigar over here really put Dubai on the map.
“In my first three years here, horse racing people in America didn’t know where Dubai was and Cigar’s presence, and so much more, really opened everything up for it after that first World Cup.”
Under the bright lights at Meydan Racecourse this weekend, Watson will watch his 24th Dubai World Cup with far more nerves as three of his five runners are in with a chance of securing victory.
Muntazah will be one of his favourites on Saturday – a horse which continues to show its stellar abilities the more he is in action.
Second to Heavy Metal in the Godolphin Mile last year, the Dubawi gelding comes into this year’s edition after successive wins at Meydan in January and March.
He clocked the fastest 1,600metre dirt time ever recorded – 1:34:99 – at Meydan three weeks ago, beating Heavy Metal by ten lengths.
“You could see him blossoming. After he won the race in Abu Dhabi, we took him over to Meydan. Jim (Crowley) got off him and said he was a nice horse. He trained so well,” he said.
“We were actually right on the cusp of not getting in to the race. I said ‘he won’t run a bad race’. We were unlucky not to win with Heavy Metal in 2018.
“We didn’t know how to run him on the dirt but the other night, he felt like he was in second gear. He’s come out of it well and we are excited.
“I think him and Cold Town will be the favourites for that race. Maybe next year we can try stretch him out.”
Drafted overcame an outside trip to capture the Mahab al Shimaal at Super Saturday on March 9, clinching his second straight group-level stakes win in the dirt-sprint division of the World Cup carnival.
But for all his class, he will face a tough task up against Roy H in the Golden Shaheen – an American seven-year-old who has sealed impressive wins in his last three races.
“There’s just something about Drafted, it has a superb will to win. He’s only been beaten once, got stuck behind a wall of horses on the turn and got caught. He didn’t reach top gear until it was too late,” Watson said.
“It seems to me like he’s a horse, that if there’s a nice pace, and gets a good run around, then he’s in with a chance.”
Kimbear will also feature in the Golden Shaheen, and as Watson insists he is positive about his progress with youth still on his side.
The son of Temple City finished second in the Al Maktoum Challenge in October. And he followed that up with fourth in the Firebreak Stakes in February, won by stablemate Muntazah.
“I knew he had speed but Drafted went ahead and won the race on World Cup night last year. He ran well there and we said that was a great start,” said Watson.
“If you watch his last two races, he didn’t travel like he normally does. He’s trained extremely well and he has trained and looked well.
“Right now, I’m very pleased with him. His legs are great, you never have to worry about him. He’s still young and has the enthusiasm to train.”
Irrespective of the result on Saturday, it will be another magical night for Watson.
Doing what he loves best and carrying himself in a positive and engaging matter.
It is easy to see why he is one of the most likeable and successful trainers around.
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