It all began with a simple phone call.
When Colonel Ali Khamis Al Jafleh answered the call, he could not have been more surprised. On the other end of the phone was His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Al Jafleh listened carefully and then politely, said yes. He was being summoned to discuss something ‘big’. At that point in time, he had no inkling that in the next couple of hours, his life would change forever.
“I did not have any clarity on what was happening at that time but I was intrigued,” he told Khaleej Times during an exclusive interview.
“But in short, His Highness told me that he wanted to start developing horse racing in the country and that he wanted it to evolve to the highest international standards.
“I was entrusted with the monumental, but hugely exciting, task of making this vision became a reality.”
As a commander in the UAE Air Force where he was a qualified pilot Al Jafleh had been to dizzy heights. But here he was being asked to reach for the sky by the visionary and forward-thinking Sheikh Mohammed, who at the time was the Deputy Ruler of Dubai.
“As it all began to sink in, I realised that it was the start of what would be an incredible journey into the future of Dubai sport,” Al Jafleh said.
“It was a daunting task. The biggest challenge for me was, where do I start, what I do and how will I go about making it happen.”
However, Al Jafleh said that Sheikh Mohammed had all the answers.
“It was as if he was reading my mind and understanding all that I was going through,” he said. “Sheikh Mohammed put my mind at ease and told me that he had a game plan. It was my job to execute it.
“Clearly he trusted me. So there I was, my mind racing and full of ideas, trying to take stock of the situation.”
Al Jafleh would go back home and begin to look for a master plan.
He told himself that he needed to focus on the task of executing Sheikh Mohammed’s ideas and not worry about the hows and whys.
“You will be surprised how smoothly everything went,” said Al Jafleh. “Sheikh Mohammed had hand-picked a team that would assist me in the project. Among them were the legendary Dr. Michael Osborne who was not a big man but a man with a big heart and a passion for horse racing that was unparalleled.
“Dr. Michael Osborne was a trusted associate of Sheikh Mohammed having helped establish Sheikh Mohammed’s Irish bloodstock operations and breeding in 1986. He came on board as the chief executive of the Emirates Racing Association.
“Brough Scott was another key member of the team that Sheikh Mohammed wanted me to put together. A senior racing journalist and radio and television presenter, Brough provided valuable inputs into the planning.”
All along Al Jafleh, who had a unique openness and infectious likeability about him, had developed a sharp mindset on the operations.
“Although racing was already taking place in Dubai in the eighties on dusty racetracks at Nad Al Sheba, we knew we had a lot of work to do to develop a racecourse that met international standards,” said Al Jafleh.
“However, the first hurdle was to get the Jockey Club to accept the UAE was a certified racing jurisdiction which adhered to all required rules and standards. Of primary importance was to prove to the Jockey Club that the country was free from any horse sickness so that horses could travel in and out according to required protocols,” he added.
“I began to visit England, Ireland, France, and the Far East where I attended all the racing conferences to observe and learn how the sport is run at the global level. I would bring back all the information and present it to Sheikh Mohammed.
“We were not seeking to make headlines, we wanted to go about the business of establishing the Dubai Racing Club with the minimum fuss,” said Al Jafleh. “The goal was to get the job done satisfactorily.”
Al Jafleh’s appeal went beyond his official duties as the first Chairman of the Dubai Racing Club which was formed in 1992.The same year, the first official race meeting took place at Nad Al Sheba racetrack.
Al Jafleh soon came to be recognised as a guidance officer who worked tirelessly and selflessly with the utmost attention to detail. In everything he did, he had the support of Sheikh Mohammed who made it possible for him to achieve all that he did for Dubai and the UAE.
The level change came when Nad Al Sheha hosted the first International Jockey’s Challenge in 1993 which attracted some of the best riders in the world, including Lester Piggott and Willie Carson.
The event caught the attention of the racing world both in terms of quality and the professional manner in which it was organised.
“All along, I was thinking how lucky I was to work under the instructions of Sheikh Mohammed,” said Al Jafleh. “He ensured that everything was smoothly run. If there was anything that I needed to raise with him, he would listen and find a solution.
“One thing that Sheikh Mohammed repeatedly advised us to do was to follow the rules of international racing and ensure that there was total transparency.
“During that time, I also received tremendous support from Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, who was the Chairman of the UAE Equestrian Federation Sheikh Abdullah bin Majid Al Qassimi and the rest of the Ruling Family,” added Al Jafleh. “We were working with high-class professional owners, trainers, and officials.
The success of the Jockey’s Challenge paved the way for the establishment of the Dubai World Cup in 1996. Interestingly, plans for this great race were hatched several years earlier by Sheikh Mohammed, Al Jafleh, Dr. Osborne, and the rest of the team.
Watching the race at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse on that landmark day was Al Jafleh whose heart was filled with pride as he had played an instrumental role in making Sheikh Mohammed’s dream race become a reality.
Since then the Dubai World Cup has encountered changes and has had its share of challenges but it has always triumphed and prevailed.
Al Jafleh remembers when the second running of the race in 1997 was actually cancelled due to torrential rains that made the track impossible for racing and how Sheikh Mohammed proved that nothing is impossible.
“Sheikh Mohammed instructed for helicopters from the UAE Air Force to be called in to dry the surface,” said Al Jafleh. “And through the determination of all officials, the race was held five days later.”
The following year, the race attained Grade I status and was won by Silver Charm, one of three Kentucky Derby winners to have ever won the race, which was another milestone.
Al Jafleh eventually retired from his position as Chairman of the Dubai Racing Club, but he would never go away.
He continues to be involved and has watched every single race even to this day.
“Horse racing has always been a big part of my life and nothing can change that,” said Al Jafleh. “I had some marvellous times developing racing and I will always remember the great work that we did to make Sheikh Mohammed proud.”
With every running of the Dubai World Cup, you can't help but remember the mark that Al Jafleh has left in the sport and the legacy that will live forever.
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