In UAE, horses are big business as well as passion

Wed May 9, 2012 10:04am EDT
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By Martin Dokoupil

DUBAI (Reuters) - When an economic crisis in Uruguay strained the finances of Pio Olascoaga Amaya's family farm, he found salvation halfway across the world: the horse racing industry of Dubai.

Olascoaga took one of his horses from Uruguay to try his luck in an endurance race in Spain. After the horse finished third, he was able to sell it to a trainer working for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai's ruler and an avid sponsor, owner and rider of horses.

That led to Olascoaga opening business ties with Dubai and 10 years later, at the age of 31, he helps run a family business selling Uruguayan-reared horses with Arabian blood to the United Arab Emirates. He acts as an agent for other farms in Uruguay as well as his own farm, which has 600 horses.

"If I sell a horse in Uruguay for let's say $20,000 on average, here you can sell at a minimum $40,000," he said. The margin makes it worth paying the $10,000 cost of transporting a horse by plane from Uruguay to Dubai, more than 17 hours away.

"Here in the UAE is the Formula One of horses. They need horses all the time, and from all around the world," Olascoaga said after making a presentation to Saudi owners at an Arabian horse fair in Dubai.

As the oil-rich Gulf economies boom, the hobbies of its wealthy local populations tend to become big business - and nowhere is that more true than for horses, a traditional passion of the region's Bedouin tribes.

Dubai, with its large tourist sector and web of international transport links, has emerged as the focus of the horse business in the region. The business took a hit in 2009-2010, when Dubai was forced to begin restructuring billions of dollars of corporate debt, but has since bounced back with the local economy; the Dubai World Cup race, launched in 1996, attracted 65,000 spectators this year.

"This is something very important for Dubai, for tourism," said Saeed H. al-Tayer, chairman of Meydan Group, which operates the opulent racecourse where the World Cup is held. He said the racecourse had a capacity of 85,000 but this could in future be expanded to 120,000 if needed.   Continued...