Stable environment

Horse-breeding on the Arabian peninsula is a serious passion

ANALYSIS, Business, Arab, Horse racing, Horse-breeding, Horses
The Meydan racecourse in Dubai is the largest in the world.
The Meydan racecourse in Dubai is the largest in the world.

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Horse-breeding on the Arabian peninsula is a serious passion, and with region-wide investment behind it, innovative equestrian construction has become a key dynamic in not just maintaining, but developing, this time-honoured tradition.

The region’s latest high-profile equestrian facility, the Al Shaqab Equestrian Academy, was finished in September 2011 at an estimated cost of $407m.

Located in Qatar’s Education City development, the 80ha horseshoe-shaped complex focuses on more than just its 350m-long performance arena; the development is aimed at sowing the seeds for the future of the equine industry.

“It is an educational establishment, not just a recreational establishment, it is part of Education City; they train grooms, they train horses, they breed horses, and they are trying to continuously improve the breed,” said John Layland, GM Middle East at Leigh & Orange Architects, the firm responsible for master-planning the project.

In a similar fashion to parallel equestrian developments such as Meydan, which was opened in March 2010, the Doha facility is set to be further expanded to include additional facilities.

Current amenities include a riding academy and equestrian club, veterinary clinic, hospital and research facilities, endurance training centre and a breeding centre. The scope and complexity of the different elements involved in the integrated equestrian complex is impressive.

“It is an interesting world, the equestrian world. So far all the people who have been involved on the project, although they did not start off as equestrian experts, are quite keen to go on to other equestrian jobs, because it has got unique challenges,” said Layland.

The performance arena required a space for all-weather conditions, with facilities for 8,000 spectators. Leigh & Orange’s solution was to propose separate outdoor and indoor competition arenas which could be viewed from the same grandstand.

Al Shaqab’s grandstand seamlessly addresses both arenas, while accommodating the individual requirements of VIPs, sponsors, spectators, media, athletes and judges in the one compactly-planned building. The dramatic 400m roof, which also encompasses a warm-up arena, resembles a Bedouin tent and visually links the complex.

“It has an unusual roof structure and support. Instead of being a straight-forward vertical building, you have these curved main girders that enter the retaining foundation at an angle,” said Layland. “It is the thing which gives it its attractive appearance; these huge roof beams which were actually made on-site.”

The colossal steel framework was fabricated and assembled by Turkish contractor Nurol, and allows the roof to be structurally efficient and to minimise the enclosed air-conditioned volume. “A unique feature of the whole facility is that all of the lighting is actually enclosed within the structure; there are no lighting masts. It is a very clean structure,” said Layland.

The lighting that overhangs the outdoor arena also doubles as a wind spoiler. Skylights over the indoor arena provide diffuse natural light, alongside installed lighting necessary for television broadcasting from the arena. The indoor stadium also hosts stratified air-conditioning, which further reduces the conditioned air volume, as well as the temperature gradient at the roof.

A final significant feature of the grandstand is that the insulated glass façades are on a hinged system, allowing them to accommodate the movement of the roof as it expands with the heat. This feature is shared by the Meydan racecourse, which adds significant scale to architectural ingenuity.

The Meydan racecourse in Dubai is the largest in the world, and is capable of accommodating over 60,000 spectators in its 1.6km-long grandstand. When not used for races, it serves as a business and conference facility in much the same as the Al Shaqab grandstand will play host to pop concerts and ceremonies.

The brainchild of Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammad, whose love of horses is renowned, and masterplanned by TAK Architects, the Meydan grandstand consists of several interlocked elements, including a hotel for a third of the length of the development.

With 95% of the rooms looking directly out onto the course, the grandstand marks a subtle shift in the tendency for few local Arabic women to be seen on the grandstands. Now families can catch the action in comfort.

At the opposite end from the hotel, the grandstand runs into a marina which connects directly to Dubai Creek. The central section of the grandstand, encompassing the main seating areas, corporate suites and the 360° view Sky Bubble bar, is covered by the world’s largest suspended roof, measuring 426m x 56m.

“On the upper side of the roof there are 8,000 solar panels which generate 750kW, contributing 20% of Meydan’s energy,” said marketing and communications manager William Oburu. “The underside is titanium, while 9,000 tonnes of steel were used in its creation.”

“The grandstand design symbolises the crescent, and is also an abstract of a falcon landing,” said Teo A. Khing of TAK Design. “Its steel claws grip the Sky Bubble lounge like a nest. There is also a distinctive Chinese symbolism to it, because we believe that, when a falcon comes to nest, it brings good fortune. Falcons have strong vision, and it is symbolic of a new future for horseracing.”

At the entrance, the falcon’s ‘feathers’ shelter 10,000 parking bays. A unique feature of Meydan is a series of tunnels that allow the horses to be led towards the track without distraction. They emerge from the tunnel with their jockeys like footballers at a stadium.

Meydan chairman Saeed Al Tayer confirmed that the cost for the grandstand alone had been $1.25bn, while the whole facility, including the giant falcon carpark, came to $2.7bn. “A lot of work has gone into the racecourse as well,” said Frank Gabriel Jr., CEO of Dubai Racing Club.

“Meydan now has a 2,400m turf track and 1,750m all-weather synthetic dirt track created by specialist Tapeta Footings. The drainage is superb; it provides a great cushion for the horses, with several layers, and is topped by a layer of fibre, rubber, sand and wax.”

It is hard to place enough emphasis on the importance of the track material in an equestrian context.

“The whole horse event is all about equestrian footings, especially the show horses, the dressage horses and for the show jumping horses, they want completely stone free and soft footing; it has got to be a very uniform footing, because if the ground where a horse lands is different from where it takes off, then you are likely to damage the horses’ knees, and these horses are several million dollars each,” said Layland.

The Meydan racecourse has also yielded a $4bn joint venture between Meydan City Corporation and TAK Design for an equestrian city in China’s Tianjin province. The Chinese development will span 300ha and include a racing district alongside an equestrian college, feedstuff plant, breeding base, horse hospital, and quarantine centre, as well as luxury hotels and commercial and residential facilities.

By the end of 2013, all of the basic facilities should have been completed, and by 2014, it is anticipated that national standard club events, a national equestrian club and national equestrian park franchises will be developed.

“We have conducted a study that recommends the development of three to four projects of this scale, as China is a large country, a growing economy where people’s lifestyles are changing, and this will strengthen the growth potential for horse racing and the equine industry,” said Al Tayer.

The Gulf Finance House (GFH) has also made a significant regional equestrian investment in the Royal Ranches Marrakech development, where 45% of the infrastructure is now complete. The project site covers 380ha in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and will include an equestrian and luxury hotels alongside an 18-hole golf course.

“Morocco has recently inked a deal with a number of GCC states to create a new Moroccan entity that will focus on the development of new tourism resorts in Morocco, which proves that this project is on the right track,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mutawa, vice-chairman of GFH.

A similar, but slightly smaller, 80ha development in Ajman was masterplanned by architectural firm Hyder Acla in 2010 for $500m, mixing leisure and residential facilities. The completed project is located on the Emirates Highway by the Ajman-Sharjah border.

“Our aim is to combine the natural and the cultured, the traditional and the contemporary, in ways that enhance each other and their surroundings,” said Dastin Hillery, senior master planner and urban designer for Hyder Acla. “The masterplan will be driven by three elements: the distinctive equestrian facilities, the wide variety of health and fitness facilities and the residential and leisure facilities.”

The community will consist of a series of landscaped gardens, terraces and balconies. The equestrian facilities include stables for 200 horses, an equestrian spa for the rehabilitation of injured horses and indoor and outdoor riding arenas. The developments in Marrakesh and Ajman are representative of a growing number of resorts for equestrian recreational activities, which can include endurance riding and training.

Endurance horse riding is not confined to stadiums and racetracks, but facilties are best located where the climate allows for a suitable riding season. A notable example is the Al Wathba Endurance Village, Abu Dhabi, refurbished in 2002. Al Wathba also broke ground in 2009 for holding the first ladies’-only ride on a course length of 90km over four stages.

The Al Shaqab Equestrian Academy also caters for endurance racing, which requires rigorous equine training, as well as a different set of conditions compared with track or dressage animals. Either way, the temperatures and other micro-conditions in which breeding horses grow up in is tightly monitored.

“In hot climates, horses subjected to air-conditioning readily experience thermal shock. So generally the stables are kept at about 28°C, and you try and make sure there is never more than a 10°C to 12°C difference between the stable temperature and the outdoor temperature,” said Layland.

“The endurance horses require slightly higher temperatures, as they will actually exercise out in the hot climate. They also have a 150m large swimming pool, tread walkers and steam saunas. The foal horses have a smaller introductory swimming pool, and they then have to get used to the full-sized one quite quickly.”

Qatar used to run an endurance course from the tip of the peninsula to the junction with the mainland, but various impracticalities, as well as concern over the safety of the horses, has since restricted endurance events to an allocated area near Umm Saeed. With the new Shaqab facility, there can be no disputing the top-class environment provided for the animals.

“The stables are very nice. When you go in, there there is no ‘horsey’ smell or anything; they are superbly clean. The lighting system is quite unique; it is relaxing to the horses. It is top lit, side lit, bottom lit, the air-conditioning is steady throughout, and there are soft floors everywhere,” said Layland.

At every level, today’s equestrian facilities demonstrate extreme attention to detail, even down to the finest details of the landscaping. “The big thing that you have to look out for is that landscaping obviously plays a big part in making a place look attractive, but you also have to be very careful about the species of plants that you use, and that they are not dangerous to horses,” said Layland.

Horses may no longer be a main mode of transport, but regional investment is making the design and construction of equestrian facilities a thriving business, and one which continues to deepen the understanding of the mysterious relationship between man and beast.

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