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Racecourse the world will see

It is a momentous double, even by the standards of an emirate that never does things by halves. Three weeks after the world's tallest skyscraper comes the unveiling of the longest "landscraper" on the planet.

At €1.16bn, it weighs in at nearly twice the cost of the tower that appears to pierce a hole in the sky.

Yet Meydan racecourse, with its grandstand 1.6km long, is no tourist attraction with foreign investment attached. It is a monument to one man's passion for a sport sometimes described by its participants as "the great triviality".

At least Meydan runs little risk of being rebranded. Five days into the new year and the Burj Dubai skyscraper had a new name.

It was rechristened Burj Khalifa, after the emir of Abu Dhabi, which extended Dubai a €17.4bn bond lifeline to service its spiralling debt.

There have certainly been better times to open a racecourse. Meydan staged its inaugural fixture today with Dubaians -- both indigenous and assimilated -- seething over the emirate's abrasive treatment by a Western media they describe as envious and imperialist in tone.

Not that evidence of a recession has permeated the Meydan fortress. The grandstand itself is due its official baptism on Dubai World Cup night in March, when the feature race will be worth €7.1m. And horsemen here for the preceding carnival speak only of facilities to die for.

Horse racing is akin to the favoured son of Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai who pursues it with a vigour to match his personal wealth. And Meydan is his favoured grandson now in need of a helping hand.

Its completion will plainly go down to the wire. The stewards' room remains unfinished for today's fixture, a state that mirrors so much of a facility that is optimistically predicted to be in near-full use come March.





CHALLENGE

Even yesterday, it was hard to believe that racing would take place. Construction workers, on site by 6am, resembled a swarm of locusts within the giant framework of the grandstand. Progress was laboured: a man polished sheets of glass not 20 feet away from one wielding a saw to marble tiles.

The sheikh, who has strived hard to unite global racing's disparate elements, faces a fresh challenge on that front too.

The decision to lay a synthetic racetrack at Meydan was made in tandem with America's embracing of such surfaces three years ago. Now, however, Santa Anita, the American standard-bearer of synthetics, is to return to racing on traditional dirt.

Two paths that might have converged now head in opposite directions. They take with them the sheikh's searing ambition to crown a truly representative global champion in the World Cup.

Meydan was meant to be a con- clusive step in that direction. As with so much in Dubai, however, that project is on ice.

© The Times, London