Royal stablehand Satish Seemar had never trained a horse when he was handpicked by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum 25 years ago
Canapés are served by immaculately-uniformed waiters on soft rolling green grass as the early evening crowd mills amid wax horse sculptures. Nearby there is a pool and a spa and all of the facilities are temperature-controlled. It’s par for the course for Dubai – except this five-star location is not just for two-legged guests. Its key clientele are horses.
The Zabeel racing stables are among the top world-class facilities on offer for horses residing in what is arguably the sport’s Middle Eastern home.
Satish Seemar is the decorated horse trainer who set up and runs Zabeel Stables. He was recruited by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, 25 years ago. Seemar was trained by Monty Roberts, the legendary American horse trainer and bestselling author of The Man Who Listens to Horses.
This evening, Seemar is entertaining the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation.
“You will never see a stable like this in the world,” he tells the gathered crowd, pointing out the air-conditioned stalls, horse spa, swimming pool and lush open paddocks. “These horses live better than 65 per cent of the human population. They eat better and live better.”
So one might expect the costs of caring for these investments to be as lavish as their surroundings.
But apparently not, as Sameer says the monthly cost of stabling one horse at Zabeel is $1,634, compared to about $6,000 a month in Japan and $4,000 in the US.
“It is the cheapest livery in the world because it is subsidised by the ruling family,” says Seemar, who adds that more than half of Zabeel’s 130 horses belong to the Al Maktoum family.
“It goes with the Arab hospitality. Sheikh Mohammed understands we have six months of racing and another six months. If we make it so expensive to keep horses, how are those people going to afford to travel anywhere to international races?”
These horses live better than 65 per cent of the human population. They eat better and live better
Like the story of Dubai, it seems part of Sheikh Mohammed’s bold vision – a vision Seemar understands well.
The 53-year-old, who was born in Abohar in north India, spent his school days drawing horses on his books at the back of the classroom. He left India as a history graduate and signed up to a Californian horse husbandry course on a whim.
Seemar then studied equine science at California Polytechnic State University in San Louis Obispo, where Roberts was lecturing. He took a shine to Seemar and gave him a job. Seemar was later headhunted by the prominent Taylor Made farms in Kentucky and learned “the business of horse racing”.
His education, horsemanship and business nous are the first three things Seemar credits with his success. The fourth, he says, was being given an opportunity by Sheikh Mohammed.
“Here is a person who could hire the best of the best,” he adds. “I was Mr Nobody – a kid who was working.”
He recalls the first time he approached his boss, “It was lunchtime and I was sitting next to him. I gathered up all my courage to whisper to him: ‘Your Highness, I hope you know I’ve never trained a racehorse before’. And he stops eating and looks at me and says: ‘Of course I know that’. Then he puts something on my plate and says: ‘Enjoy the lunch’.”
Sheikh Mohammed’s faith was rewarded when within months, Seemar’s horses started winning – causing their trainer some angst.
“I won four races on the first day and I was embarrassed. I said, ‘How is this possible? Me starting out and just winning four cars as prizes’.”
Undeterred, Sameer became the first UAE trainer to win a European race soon after in 1993. In 2012, he was given a special award by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to non-violent horse training.
But his friends told him not to leave his American job and move to the “village” of Dubai when Sheikh Mohammed came knocking.
“During our first conversation, he told me: ‘We will have the best race in the world. We will have people coming from all over the world to watch the racing. I said: ‘No way’ – in my head at least. And it has not only come true, but come true a thousand fold.”
While Dubai is now home to the richest horse race in the world, the $10 million Dubai World Cup held at Meydan every March, it has not always been plain sailing. The 2013 Godolphin doping incident marked a low point in Dubai’s horseracing story.
Mahmood al Zarooni, the Emirati head trainer of Godolphin stables, which are owned by the Al Maktoum family, was banned from racing for eight years after admitting to breaching British Horseracing Authority rules by treating 11 horses with anabolic steroids.
But Seemar urges caution. The drugs were administered when the horses were out of competition, something that was then legal in the UAE, Australia and the US but not in Britain, where the incident happened.
Seemar says, “I don’t think anyone can memorise the whole rule book. You are liable to miss a few things. I am not trying to defend it or anything. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding but the fact is those horses did not race. There was confusion at the time whether the horses could be treated or not.”
While he does not believe Al Zarooni’s actions were deliberate, the incident has led to tighter restrictions in the UAE.
“Now we follow the same rule as the UK,” says Seemar. “What has been done in this country in 20 years, it took other countries hundreds of years.”
And nothing seems to slow down Sheikh Mohammed’s vision to keep growing at pace.
“Until this day I cannot figure a person like him out,” he says. “He runs the country, he knows his horses, he rides himself in the endurance races, he goes to the auctions. If there was a superman in real life, I would say it is him because I do not know how many hours he has in one day.”