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Alistair Cohen commentated a couple of races in his home town of Durban last Saturday and took time to speak about the trials and tribulations of his time in Dubai, which was not always a bed of roses. although he clearly regarded it overall as an enriching experience.

 

Alistair’s parents sat in the box with him while he commentated last Saturday and he said that was never going to distract him because at one of the courses in the UAE, Al Alain, he had to compete for a vantage point with a judge and stipendiary stewards from the same booth.

That was just one of the challenges he faced over there.

The first commentary complication he experienced was caused by the impressive echo effect viewers are treated to on the TV productions from Meydan.

Alistair said, “When I got there the Stipes told me there would be quite a lot of competition with yourself at Meydan because there are three massive speakers in the middle of the course that speak straight back at you. The first three meetings actually took a lot of adjustment. It is really, really tricky (a bit like talking on the cellphone when your voice comes back at you). That was quite a challenge  but after a few meetings you tend to block it out and it becomes second nature. But when we got to the carnival meetings, and Super Saturday especially, they tend to turn the speakers right up and you go ‘Agh no, not today of all days!'” 

He continued, “Durbanville is actually similar to that because there are speakers on the inside. I’ve only ever called two meetings there and a few ready to run gallops and all you ever hear is yourself coming straight back at you. Who would have thought Durbanville would be the place to practice for Meydan!” 

Alistair explained they use the loud speakers at Meydan to enhance the atmosphere for TV viewers. 

He said, “The entire TV production team – producers, engineers, cameramen, etc – fly over from the UK for every Meydan racemeeting or double-header, so I told them the speakers are a bit loud and they told me you have to deal with it because it is for effect.”

Alistair got a wake up call about how specialised the production team is in his first meeting, having got used to South African producers, who generally do not have much knowledge of horseracing.

He related, “I was told by the producer John McCormack, who is also an Aston Villa fan by the way,  ‘You’ve got to talk about every horse in the parade ring’ and I said to myself ‘Well that is a bit of a hospital pass being my first meeting.’ I obviously tried to study the form but some of the horses form, for example Hypothetical who had run third in a feature the previous season, did not show in the book because it was too long ago. So the producer buzzed up to me and said ‘This horse ran third in the Balanchine last year’, and I had left it out and I thought ‘Why is the producer so clued up? Why is he telling me what to do?’ And then before the horses came out he buzzed me up again and says ‘You didn’t use my information?’ and ‘I said with all due respect, John, you’re a producer’ and he replied, “I’m a horseracing producer, it is my  job to know horseracing.’ And from there any tidbit he or the other producers gave me was used!”. 

Alistair said the overall experience was great and elaborated, “The first three months were tough. Obviously the racing takes a bit of time to warm up. The first two or three meeting at Meydan, as excited as I was to call there, I knew the quality would only get better. The fact that South Africa went on to the red list shortly after me arriving and not being able to have Candice come over and visit as early as I would have wanted and of course Mike de Kock had intentions of being there a little bit more often than he was … so that took a little bit of wind out of my sails. But when 2021 became 2022 I was lot more easy, the carnival began, more quality horses came, South Africa was taken off the red list and I got a lot more comfortable. The judge there, the former jockey Paul Devlin, kept me on the straight and narrow before that. The truth be told there were a few evening where I thought ‘I don’t know if I can do this, time for me to come home’. It was just about missing the comforts of home, but Paul told me to ‘stick it out’ and also all my colleagues who work in the office and the stipes, Sam Shinsky and Taylor Wilson, they used to invite me out if there was anything going on at their place. They made me feel as comfortable as I could.”

He found “all of the racecourses challenging in different ways.”

“Meydan is super special, level 6 … huge grandstand. If there is a commentary box in the world as impressive as that and as user friendly as that I would like to see it. You can see everything for miles from the commentary position and the colours are easy to identify, it is an absolute pleasure. It’s obviously challenging when Godolphin have five horses in a race and you have to distinguish with the caps.” 

“At Jebel Ali I sit at the 150m mark with no vantage point on the course, everything comes off the TV. That is a really challenging racecourse., especially when they climb the hill … the first time I  see them is when they are climbing up the hill – you can’t see them at the start. In races around the turn I see them with about 700m left to run and also stretching a little bit to get my head out the window.”

“At Abu Dhabi I call from the top of a flight of stairs but it is actually quite a comfortable place to call because I am on the line … there is just not a booth but the vantage point is good.”

“Sharjah is not a bad place to call, there is just not enough room for two of us.”

At Al Alain racecourse he is squeezing in with the judge and the stipes as mentioned earlier. He said it was also a “tricky” course to commentate at.

“They always seem to be running away from you and then when they turn for home they are all running at you in a straight line because of the vantage point you have.”

Also at the courses outside of Dubai there tends to be one owner having many horses in each race. 

One interesting meeting at Al Alain was when the entire production team failed to pitch up. .

“No cameramen, no TVs, no equipment … nothing … so I ended up calling, with no PA system, to locals who didn’t understand a word I was saying! I took that home with me quite fondly … when things don’t work in SA I think of that and everything is ok.”

Alistair said he was congnisant of the fact that there was no gambling going on in UAE meetings.

He elaborated, “There is no such thing as a favourite. A favourite becomes a fancy. But from every other point of view it is a normal race meeting. For me even commentating in SA where punting is the lifeblood, I try and divorce myself from thinking about everybody having backed a certain horse because in a field of 12 there is one winner and eleven losers. So I try and not get too charismatic and too carried away with things like that generally, so it was quite an easy transition from that point of view in the end.”

In the previews before meetings with Racing TV, Alistair was actually encouraged to talk about the betting odds because it was going to places abroad including SA.

“But that is where it ends because at meetings you are not only presenting to punting jurisdictions but to the on course fraternity in the UAE where punting doesn’t happen.”

Alistair had no trouble sleeping on the night before the biggest meeting of his career to date, The Dubai World Cup.

“The beauty of it is that the week before the World Cup is so intense and so busy that by the time I got to Friday night I had probably slept for about a total of ten hours in four evenings, so I was so drained by then I actually had a pleasant night’s sleep. I did wake up unusually early and there were butterflies and it was quite a thrill. I was forced to get to the racecourse quite early because there were a lot of links we had to do, but that was also a blessing because it took your mind off the fact that I was about to do something pretty big.”

Alistair arrived at the course that day at 10h30 and the first race was at 13H45 and the Dubai World Cup at 20H30. 

“It was non-stop but the nice thing about the Meydan commentary box is there are nice comfortable chairs, so you can put your feet up and catch your breath for a while.”

Alistair is a keen cricketer and he said as the big race approaches it is similar to going out to bat. 

“You have to be a little nervous before every race, because the day you are not it is time to find something else to do … the passion might have drained out if that ever happens.”

He continued, “I tricked myself throughout the World Cup meeting by keeping my headphones on and listening to everything that was going on and to be in coms if anything was needed of me besides commentating. But stupidly I took my headset off after the canter past of the Dubai World Cup and I thought ‘That is a very, very loud hum’ and that was the first time I realised there is a huge crowd here, the whole world is watching, don’t mess it up! So there were big butterflies just before the World Cup.”

About the actual race he said, “Everybody expected Life Is Good to win and at the top of the straight nothing was travelling all that well … Life Is Good was travelling very well, but obviously he did not get home, he did not stay in the end. I was lucky because I thought Country Grammar was one of the horses that was floundering but Frankie ended up getting him on to the bit and he finished off his race well.”

He continued, “But overall my biggest take away from World Cup night was how the Japanese performed, the way they were trained, the talk, the attention to detail they had leading up to the Wold Cup … absolutely phenomenal and for anybody who didn’t know Japan is a serious racing jurisdiction.”

Alistair elaborated about the Japanese excellence, “My first indication of it was at Breakfast With The Stars. I was told the Japanese horses will all have different saddle cloths and everything is judged on time and it will all be quite impressive. When I saw Panthalassa doing two miles on the dirt (thee days before World Cup night), that is something I have never see before. They are stripped to the nth degree, they are as fit as you can’t believe. If you see a British or USA horse training in the UAE it is not dissimilar to South Africa, but the Japanese just take it to a different level.”

He said about the race meeting post Dubai World Cup, “Sadly Bob Baffert was not there, but I met a lot of good trainers in my time there. Jamie Osborne and I became good friends. I met John Gosden who is a lovely man. Charlie Appleby is an absolute rockstar, the nicest man. When I went to the Marmoom stables farm he made Justin Vermaak, the handicapper Mark Bird and me feel so welcome. We had a lovely time and he is the most accommodating man, you can phone him at anytime and he will happily have a conversation with you.”

He also rubbed shoulders with the jockeys, which was another good experience. The seasonal jockeys all stayed in the same hotel as him. He said all of the jockeys and trainers who seem like superstars from afar, including the like of Frankie Dettori, William Buick and Charlie Appleby, are actually “all really nice upright guys.”

He was only able to see Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and owner of Godolphin, from afar due to the size of his entourage and the strict security around him.

However, he did meet the man who is “generally entrusted to run the show”, “Sheik Rashid”. 

He also met one of Mike de Kock’s big owners, Sheik Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Matoum, and said, “I went to lunch with him obviously through Mike and that was also an awesome experience. He was a lovely guy and did not miss a race.”

Of the best horses he witnessed he said, “It would be easy to say Manobo even though he was beaten in the Dubai World Cup. He is seriously impressive, he will win Group 1 races all over the place. Real World is very impressive on turf, he can’t run on dirt. ”    

Picture credit: AlAdiyat.ae.