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Dubai new boy Michael Costa didn’t have to wait long for his first Carnival success and he expects more Meydan triumphs ongoing, as he works to unlock the potential of Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum’s Jebel Ali Stables.
Michael Costa knows what it takes to build something from nothing. “Brick by brick,” he said, “horse by horse,” he put in what little cash he had and worked long, exhausting days to rise from Sydney stable hand to one-horse trainer to the master of a 120-horse Gold Coast stable, all within a decade: and then he moved on.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s people came knocking last summer and the Australian is building again, but this time upon a foundation that has long been in place, at the Sheikh’s Jebel Ali Stables in Dubai: he is just a few months into rebuilding the string and improving the fortunes, he hopes, of a stable that has for too long failed to fulfil its potential.
“The goal for this season is to get the greatest out of every horse we’ve got in the barn,” he told Asian Racing Report. “Everyone is telling us how good we’re going but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, we’re definitely rebuilding for the next couple of years and that’s exciting as to what’s going to be coming in the future.
“We’ve got 63 horses at the moment, not all in work, but on the complex. 15 to 20 will be dispersed and sold at the end of the season, we will buy yearlings and bring those along, and the goal would be to build a team of 80 horses for season 2023-24.”
Last weekend, having seen off a bout of Covid, he had his first Dubai Carnival runner, on opening night: Mouheeb carried the Sheikh’s famous yellow and black silks to third place in the G3 Dubawi Stakes, three lengths behind the 2022 G1 Dubai Golden Shaheen hero Switzerland; two days later, he welcomed his first Carnival victor, Nibraas.
Costa has eight wins this UAE season and Nibraas was his fourth at Meydan, the Emirates’ big track. That tally is double what his predecessor at Jebel Ali Stables, Nicholas Bachalard, was able to accrue at Meydan in four seasons; and it is only one less than Dhruba Selvaratnam’s best season haul there.
Selvaratnam was put in place as Jebel Ali’s original trainer in 1990 when the facility opened. He enjoyed some fulfilling cross-town raids at Meydan and at its forerunner Nad Al Sheba across a 27-year span, with the likes of Seihali, Market Rally Forjatt and Mowarij. But there was never a Group 1 success and always a sense of the Jebel Ali stable being the outsider, the smaller, more distant neighbour of the Nad Al Sheba and Al Quoz stables, the bigger boys of Godolphin, Doug Watson or, back in the day, the potent Mazin Al Kurdi string.
Costa is not making grand predictions about Group 1s but that big night out mindset around winning races at Meydan is something he is keen to banish.
“To be fair, it should be normal,” he said of the stable’s recent wins at the Dubai World Cup venue, located 15 miles from Jebel Ali. “His Highness gives great support to the industry and when you’ve got his support, it should be a success, there’s no expectation other than success. It needs to be a stable that is respected.”
Sheikh Ahmed, 72, is the youngest of the four ‘original’ Maktoum brothers and one of only two surviving alongside Sheikh Mohammed. He established the Jebel Ali race club and built the racecourse, noted for its unusual elongated-horseshoe dirt track and steep climb to the finish line; he owned the champion of the late 1980s Mtoto and more recently had top level success with Addeybb, both trained in Britain.
The Sheikh is rarely seen at the races and was always the least conspicuous of the brothers but his commitment to racing has been tried and tested across more than four decades and has remained consistent. Costa has found a patron who is still fully engaged with the sport.
“He doesn’t attend the races but he’s definitely very involved,” he said. “He empowers all of my decisions, which is just fantastic and enables us to move quickly. We also discuss everything moving forward which is great and he’s got a great racing knowledge as well, so it’s great to piggyback off his ideas as well as present ideas and work as a team.
“That was the main reason why I took the role because I believed in who I was coming to work for and the management as well. It’s a great team that he’s set up here.”
Costa said the upgraded facilities, including the sand track and the dirt training track with an uphill rise, mean it is “like training out of paradise.”
With a full team already employed at Jebel Ali, Costa took with him one member of his Australian staff plus one eager jockey, Jean Van Overmeire. He said that he approached the 29-year-old because he wanted to remove some of the variables of being in a new place by employing a stable rider to whom he could relay instructions without miscommunication.
“He’s been a great acquisition for the team,” Costa said. “He’s very hungry to ride and he’s here for the season but we’d like to think that that relationship would continue.”
Costa’s first horse cost him AU$4,000; by the time he left Australia he had the best strike rate in the country. Having already built a successful operation from scratch, he is confident in the Jebel Ali rebuild.
“We’ve got everything in place to make a successful stable,” he said.
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