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.
Winx extended her winning streak to 32 on Saturday with a fourth victory in the George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill.
In the process, the Chris Waller-trained mare made it a remarkable 24th Group One win.
Settled towards the rear through the early stages, Hugh Bowman’s mount made effortless progress around runners and required only a brief shake of the reins a furlong and a half out before striding readily clear.
Winner of four Cox Plates, Winx is scheduled to have the final start of her glittering career in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick on April 13.
And Waller is adamant he will not be tempted to seek a fifth Cox Plate.
“She’s at her best and she’s going to retire at her best. I think it’s the best way to go out,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I’m sure she’s know what’s going on. Just a marvellous horse to work with and we owe it to her to be in this position.”
If you’re looking for a family-friendly activity that’ll take you out of the dusty and rainy weather we’ve been experiencing lately, don’t miss this week’s Emirates Longines Show Jumping League competitions, which will kick off over the weekend at the Emirates Heritage Club in Abu Dhabi.
The national show will take place on Friday, March 22 nd and Saturday, March 23 rd , 2019.
Held under the supervision of the UAE Equestrian and Racing Federation (UAEERF), the two-day show jumping competition will see riders jumping heights of up to 145cm in the club’s indoor sand arena.
You’ll be able to witness 11 action-packed classes – five on Friday and six on Saturday – for riders and horses of all levels. This national includes competitions for Advanced riders (Division 1), Amateurs (Novice Division and Division 2), Juniors (riders between the ages of 14 – 18), Children, and Young Horses (4 – 5 year-olds & 5 – 6 year-olds).
As special additions to this show, there will also be a Fun Class for fathers and sons where they will compete in One Round Against the Clock (on Friday) as well as a competition dedicated to riders who will be jumping beautiful but extremely spirited Arabian horses (on Saturday). All riders will be competing for their share of a whooping 700,000 AED prize purse.
For more information on the Emirates Longines Show Jumping League or to learn about upcoming shows, please visit www.emiratesequestrian.com or call the UAEERF Jumping Department on 02 666 1800 between 9am – 4pm.
What: The Emirates Longines Show Jumping League
When: Friday, March 22 nd , 2019 and Saturday, March 23 rd , 2019 from 8:30am
Where: Emirates Heritage Club
Parking: Free parking within walking distance to the main arena