Susan George and Simon MacCorkindale, both great horse lovers, glance across the paddock enclosure with wonderment written across their faces. “We’ve been to race meetings all over the world, but we’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says Susan. “There is something very special about this race, which has attracted the world’s best horses, owners, trainers and jockeys.”
Susan and her husband Simon were among a host of celebrities present at the inaugural event at the Nad Al Sheba racetrack, located 15 kilometres from the centre of Dubai.
Also in town were American aircraft tycoon Allen Paulson, owner of the world’s most famous champion, Cigar, and some of the most successful trainers in the world like Bill Mott and Richard Mandella from the United States, Andre Fabre from France and Geoff Wragg and Clive Brittain from the UK. They were in Dubai with the world’s favourite jockeys, among them the British champion Frankie Dettori, American champion Chris McCarron and French champion Thierry Garnet.
Simon, a convert to horses and all things equine since he met Susan, cannot disguise his enthusiasm at attending the event. “The idea that a number of racehorses of this quality, champions of champions, are all here is a fabulous notion – an event to remember,” he says.
“It’s wonderful, too,” adds Susan, “that American horse owners have been so brave and taken the risk to bring their horses out here. It’s a hell of a distance in terms of transportation. Cigar, the favourite – and winner – from the United States, had never travelled abroad before.”
The World Cup race, which attracted the very best middle-distance runners in the world, and some 20,000 spectators, had as its setting the fabulous Nad Al Sheba racecourse, a wonderful showcase for the sport of kings – and of sheikhs.
Sheikh Mohammed, Dubai’s Crown Prince and the most powerful horse-owner in the world, is the inspiration and guiding force behind the world cup. “When we met him,” says Susan, “we could immediately tell how proud it has made him to have laid on such a fabulous pre-race event for all his happy guests.”
The events included a glittering gala dinner in the seashore gardens of the Hilton Beach Club in which Britain’s top rock band Simply Red entertained the VIP guests who sat at candlelit tables beneath a balmy, starlit evening as Mick Hucknall sang hit song after hit song. There were golf tournaments, celebrity polo matches and an Arabian Nights extravaganza at a desert location where Susan and Simon rode camels, feasted on exotic food, listened to local musicians and singers – and watched as Sheikh Mohammed danced with a group of Dubai performers dressed in national Arab costumes.
And then, as the Arabian night wore on, there was an opportunity for the MacCorkindales to meet many friends who had flown to Dubai for the World Cup. First to share their table was the legendary American composer Burt Bacharach, whose horse, Soul of the Matter, came second in the World Cup.
“Susie and I go back a long way,” reflected the 57-year-old composer of worldwide hits like What The World Needs Now and Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.
Says Susan: “Burl and I met while travelling on a plane together. I lived in Los Angeles on and off for 12 years and we met up quite often both in LA and in Las Vegas when my boyfriend was singing. I’m absolutely thrilled that Burt’s horse, Soul of the Matter, was the runner up.”
Next to join the couple was the international racehorse owner Robert Sangster. And there was 10-times champion jockey Pat Eddery, who rode Larrocha in the World Cup.
The opening ceremony began with magnificent pageantry as Channel Four racing presenter (and the Dubai event’s commentator) Derek Thompson announced: “Welcome to the Royal Family of Dubai.” There followed a bagpipe entry of the sheikh’s guard, with Dubaian horseback riders carrying the national flags of the competing nations: the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Japan, France and Canada. After the race, Sheikh Mohammed admitted he had been nervous about whether owners and trainers around the world would take up his challenge. “I am not nervous any more,” he said, “I am very happy.”
Among the guests at the dinner-dance afterwards were comedy actor Derek Nimmo and Baywatch star Yasmine Bleeth. Joining the MacCorkindales at their table was Susan’s old friend Imran Khan and his new wife Jemima, resplendent in pale salmon-pink. Later, Susan and Simon met the World Cup architect, Sheikh Mohammed.
“I told him I own Arab horses,” explains Susan. “He asked if I’d ever thought about racing them. I said I had, and might one day. I reminded him that Arab horses had an incredible sense of humour, which means you also have to have a sense of humour if you own Arab horses. When it comes to racing they can be fantastic but more often than not, they decide when to stop and when to go. He laughed at that.”
Susan, still a potent part of the public psyche stemming from her powerful, sexy image in Straw Dogs and 30 other films to date, relaxes in the Dubai Racing Clubhouse and explains how, and when, she was bitten by the “horse bug”.
“My grandmother was a dedicated backer of horses right into her late 80s. She’d sit in front of the telly with a wee dram of whisky and back all the horses.
“It used to drive her mad that whilst she did all her calculations, on jockeys, weather and the like, I would watch the horses going round the paddock and say: ‘Nanny, I really like the look of that one’. While she was spending fortunes, my half crown each way on my horse often won the day.”
Simon came to horses much later. “My interest in Arab horses began while working on the film Death On The Nile,” he says. “I had to ride in the desert, among the pyramids, I became hooked on Arab horses after that.”
Says Susan: “It’s absolutely wonderful for us to be in a part of the world where Arab horses originated. Their movement is what impresses me most. They float, which I find so breathtakingly beautiful it can practically make my heart skip a beat. They’re such proud and powerful creatures.”
Horses are such an integral part of Susan’s life that even some of her professional moments as an actress are imbued with a horsey connotation. “I remember going to Aintree for the Grand National in the Seventies. I’d gone with the impresario Robert Stigwood whose horse, Arctic Prince, was running. In the middle of the meeting we were all having lunch when there was a message on the tannoy asking me to go to the phone. Fearing bad news I crouched behind the bar so I could hear over the excited chatter.
“Hi Susan – it’s Bob Hope!” came the voice at the other end of the line. Utterly surprised I learned that Bob was in London to do a TV special for NBC and the leading lady, who was to do a sketch with him and Richard Burton, had walked out after a row and Bob wanted me to replace her. I rushed straight from Aintree to London and was rehearsing with Bob and Richard that afternoon. We did the sketch the next day at the Palladium. It was all such a whirlwind, I’m afraid I never did find out where Arctic Prince came in the Grand National.”
The race which brought them to Dubai evokes many other happy memories of days at the races for the MacCorkindales. “We’ve been to most of the racetracks over the years and seen many of Sheikh Mohammed’s horses running,” says Simon. “We like to have the odd flutter. I struck lucky on Red Rum each time he won in three different events. But the thing about being in showbusiness is that our life is such a gamble that we don’t need to bet to get a ‘rush’.”
Susan and Simon escaped to Dubai, a country which lies on the blue waters of the southern Gulf and is backed by the majestic desert, as a respite against their busy, gruelling professional life as actors and co-producers of their production company, Amy International.
Work starts in the autumn on a film called The Liaison, a turn-of-the-century love story in which Susan stars arid in which Simon directs from his own co-written screenplay.
“It’s been a real tonic to have this break in a country which we are discovering for the first time,” says Simon, star of the US soap Falcon Crest, and of this own TV series Manimal “We love Dubai’s fascinating contrasts, its distinctive blend of modern city and timeless desert, east and west, old and new.”