LIVING THE HIGH LIFE IN UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
FEARGAL COOPER from Monageer runs one of the most exclusive B&B'S in the world. His four-legged customers jet in from all over the globe, demanding only the very best of food and lodgings. His work requires that he rubs shoulders with sheikhs and with many of the leading names in his chosen sport.
Feargal is manager of Dubai Racing Club, the stables on the Persian Gulf which accommodate horses arriving in the Persian Gulf to compete on the local racing calendar. It is his job to ensure that his equine guests receive prompt and efficient service so that they reach the track properly fed and stabled with all veterinary needs seen to.
He has just had his busiest time of the year, as the racing industry on the Persian Gulf buildt up to the fabulously lucrative Dubai World Cup at the end of March. In charge of this most exclusive yard since 1999, the 39-year-old Wexford expatriate is by now too experienced to feel the heat, which is usually no more than 20 to 25 degrees centigrade at this time of year anyway. In summer, the weather is genuinely hot.
It is a long way from the CBS in Enniscorthy to the Emirates but for Feargal - son of Mary and the late Liam Cooper - it was a logical route to follow. Horses were always his passion. To the dismay of his mother, he never sat the Leaving Cert, preferring to take up work instead with legendary trainer Jim Bolger from Oylegate. Aidan O'brien from Clonroche (whatever happened to him?) was on the payroll in the Bolger yard at Coolcullen around the same time.
After five years, young Cooper moved on to England where he was taken under the wing of Nicky Henderson. Feargal can truthfully claim to have ridden winners in both Britain and Ireland but by his own account, he was 'always heavy and not good enough' to make a successful professional jockey. He needed employment out of the saddle and he found it back in County Wexford with trainer Sue Brammell for two years at her enterprise in Kilanerin.
Then came the opportunity to head for the Gulf and he took it. Now Dubai is home for him, for his wife Elaine and for their two young sons Seán and Ruairí. The family lives in an apartment a ten minute spin from the Meydan race course which is the focus of so much of his energies. The place has built up an enviable reputation in a relatively short time.
Though the Arabs have conducted a love affair with horses since time immemorial, it was 1992 before modern style flat racing was imported to the region. In keeping with local law, betting is forbidden, with no bookies on course and access to gambling websites rigorously blocked. It seems that the crowds who throng the four courses in the Emirates attend out of simple love of the sport.
They are joined by trainers, jockeys and owners from all four corners - Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, the United States and Brazil are all represented. The sizeable European contingent includes a fair smattering of Irish. Earlier this season, Feargal was delighted to welcome Enniscorthy's Pat Dobbs to the Emirates. However, the talented rider from The Shannon had his share of success but was obliged to fly back to his base in the UK for treatment on a shoulder injury.
There are plenty of other Irish faces picking up a tropical tan and no shortage of Irish pubs - the local tradition is teetotal but alcohol is tolerated. The foreigners have to respect holy days which means, in effect, that the bars are closed and the Guinness taps are turned off a dozen times a year, rather than just on Good Fridays and Christmas Day. Similarly, eating pigmeat is not in keeping with Moslem practice but on the day this interview was conducted down the line from Dubai, dinner on the Cooper table comprised potatoes and pork chops, a spread that would not look out of place back in Monageer. And there are cornflakes for breakfast, of course, with ample supplies of imported Kerrygold butter.
Feargal keeps up to date with affairs back home via the RTE internet player. Irish artistes like Sharon Corr, Mundy, and Finbar Furey he catches up with in venues such as Mcgettigan's where Paul Brady topped the bill this year on Saint Patrick's Day.
Dubai is clean. Dubai is a safe place for a family to grow up. Dubai has been affected by recession but cranes may still be seen on building sites. But Dubai is not home. On the plus side, the restaurants are world class, the work is great and the shopping malls are a wonder. On the other hand, the desert scenery is monotonous and the summers are a blisteringly torrid contrast to the climate he was reared in. 'I miss hurling and football matches,' confesses Feargal, though he is a member (non-playing these days) of the Dubai Celts. 'I miss home and in a perfect world I would be home. I would like to bring the kids up in Ireland - they certainly don't have Monageer accents. For the moment, I have to stay put.'