By William Nack
GQ, October 2002
It was a moment that joined two worlds, one in which the very old really began to understand the very new. It was 5:40 P.M. on Saturday, May 1, 1999, ten minutes after a horse named Charismatic—yet another male-line descendant of the immortal Eclipse—had won the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby, and they were leading the chestnut colt into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. The fourth-largest crowd in Derby history, some 150,000 strong, were on their feet in a thunderous salute, pumping fists and cheering through the vaulting grandstand tiers. And then, suddenly, down on the racetrack—among the dazed trainers and dirt-spattered jockeys, among the beaten horses and their muttering grooms—the most influential figure in the modern history of the sport, Sheik Mohammed Rashid al-Maktoum, materialized along the outside rail near midstretch. Sheik Mohammed, the crown prince of the oil-rich emirate of Dubai, the brains and energizing force behind the global racing empire known as Godolphin Stables, had descended from this clubhouse box to check on his horse, Worldly Manner, who had faded to seventh after menacing for the lead on the turn for home.
His Highness reportedly had paid $5 million for Worldly Manner the autumn before, with the calculated purpose of winning this Kentucky Derby, but that the colt had failed him here did not seem to pain him. Standing by that fence, his back to the stands, he watched quietly as Charismatic, his nostrils hotly flared, strode in triumph toward the blanket of red roses. No man alive has had more experience in such jubilant settings. From Ascot to Epsom in England, from Longchamp in Paris to the Curragh in Ireland, from Italy to Melbourne to Hong Kong, Sheik Mohammed has followed his horses into charmed circles everywhere. Now, in the gloaming of a late Kentucky afternoon, he seemed to have found his most passionate love anew. Only one reporter, a scribe from the Thoroughbred Times, was there to record his thoughts as he leaned against the fence and sighed. “You can’t find this anywhere except here.” he said. “This is fabulous. We’ll be back. Within the next four years, we will win it.”
Three years later, that moment in Louisville remained among his most vivid memories, that and the long walk down the homestretch to the barns, with fans lining the fence and yelling to him. “I remember I was walking to the stables from the racetrack,” he was saying now, in the glow of the fire, “and people who did not know me were saying, ‘Sheik, come back! Come back and see us again!’ That gave me a great feeling. They love racing there. They like to win. In America they like the competition. They like someone to come and challenge!”
Late on a cool evening in the desert outside Dubai, some thirty kilometers east of the hard lights of the city and the Persian Gulf, a wood bonfire was blazing in a pit of sand, its sparks licking upward in gentle gusts of wind toward the breast of a cloudless sky. A crescent moon, appearing as though ordered by the sheik himself, hung in the heavens like a silver pendant on a chain of stars, and a few dunes away you could almost smell the roasting lamb and hear the music from his party, Arabian Nights, wafting through the desert air. It was two days before the running of the sport’s most lucrative card—seven races worth more than $15 million in purses, crowned by the $6 million Dubai World Cup—and the sheik was holding a soiree under tents for some 2,000 revelers who sipped wine, nibbled kebabs and rode his camels. He would arrive late, as usual, with his entourage in tow.
Sheik Mohammed had spent most of the day in the desert, riding in a 130-kilometer championship endurance race in which his mount, a 7-year-old Arabian gelding named King of the Wind, so weakened in the heat that the sheik decided not to persevere with him. “He is young and got a bit tired,” he said on dismounting. “He does not have the experience.” Undeterred, Sheik Mohammed then mounted his Land Rover and took off in a billow of sand to chase and cheer on three of his racing sons, one of whom, 18-year-old Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum, would win the event in 5:24:57. (In Arabic names, the word bin means “son of”; al-Maktoum, in this case, means “of the family of Maktoum.”) His eyes alight, a broad grin breaking the dark contours of his neatly trimmed mustache and beard, the father greeted the victorious son as though he had just won the Derby.
It was almost nine o’clock by the time Sheik Mohammed arrived at the campfire outside his desert retreat. Horses may be a passion—he was married on horseback, in front of 20,000 people, in a ceremony that cost $44 million—but they consume only a slice of his jam-packed schedule. A onetime jet-fighter pilot, he is the defense minister of the United Arab Emirates. His cell phone chimes almost constantly. A half-dozen solemn-faced Bedouin guards, sitting motionless on rugs and pillows in the bowl of light, sprang to their feet at his approach. At age 52, dressed in sandals and a simple black robe (a kandora) and wearing a black-corded headdress, he looked trim and fit.
“What you saw today is my heritage,” Sheik Mohammed said. “No Thoroughbred could run an endurance race with these horses. What you saw today were Arab horses.”
Over the past twenty-five years, the sheik has been reclaiming his Arab history in lush places far removed from the deserts of Dubai, and that pursuit has made him the most dominating force ever involved in the Thoroughbred game. Together with his two older brothers—Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the UAE, and Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s deputy ruler and the UAE’s minister of finance and industry—Sheik Mohammed has spent more than 52 billion on the sport, most of it in extraordinary raids on the world’s Thoroughbred gene pool. Grateful breeders in Lexington, Kentucky, refer to the three Maktoums, affectionately, as the Doobie Brothers and wait for their private 747, nicknamed the Magic Carpet, to roll to a stop on the runway at Blue Grass Airport—directly across Versailles Pike from the blue-ribbon-yearling sales at Keeneland Race Course.
No Thoroughbred owner in history has come close to matching the size and scope of the Maktoums’ racing empire. Between 1980 and 1993, the period of its most feverish growth, they spent $477 million on 1,000 yearlings, according to The BloodHorse, the industry’s leading trade publication. That does not include the money they shelled out privately for yearlings and weanlings and for stallion shares and broodmares. Nor do those numbers reflect the staggering sums they have spent on the vast tracts of farmland from Great Britain to central Kentucky, nearly 17,000 neatly manicured acres. The Maktoums have seventy-one stallions working at their various studs, most of them at Sheik Mohammed’s place in England; a veritable buffalo herd of the bluest-blooded broodmares in the world, almost 1,000 strong; and around 1,200 horses in training around the globe.
What better way to bear the emirate’s message, given its culture and history, than on the back of a very fast horse?
Sheik Mohammed has been the inspiration behind this growth—the point man for the family, its sheiker and mover. In 1993, in a move unprecedented for the sport, he created the Godolphin Stables. Named after the Godolphin Arabian, one of the Thoroughbred breed’s three foundation sires, it is no less than an equine all-star team—a stable of some 250 racehorses selected each year from among the most talented in the brothers’ possession.
Far more than a sporting enterprise, Godolphin is designed to advertise Dubai to the world. Faced with a diminishing supply of oil, the Maktoum family has been working for years to unleash the economy from black gold, to build on the emirate’s tradition as a tax-free, duty-clean entrepôt where capital flows relatively unhassled. So far the brothers have succeeded. Last year revenues from oil contributed only 6 percent of Dubai’s gross domestic product. Tourism and trade, banking and the Internet—plus alcohol and hookers, many from Russia with love—have made the bustling burg the most wide-open city in the Middle East. A Singapore in the sand, a Hong Kong without Beijing. Home to major tournaments in golf, tennis and motorboat racing. Godolphin was enlisted to spread the word.
“Godolphin is Dubai,” says the sheik. “Everything is for Dubai.”
And what better way to bear the emirate’s message, given its culture and history, than on the back of a very fast horse?
Reclining on a rug by the fire, his elbow resting on a pillow. Sheik Mohammed began fingering his cultural pulse, feeling for his Bedouin tradition, for the lore and legend he had learned as a boy growing up in Dubai. “In Arabia the family would have a horse, a falcon and a dog,” he said, “and the Arab would treat them like they were family. When they had no food, the very last food they had would be offered to the dog or the falcon or horse—before they offered food to their children. The horse was the meaning of life. They attacked on the horse. They ran away on the horse. And that is why Arabian horses were bred for thousands of years. That is why they bred the good female to the good male. The Arabs would travel a long distance with a mare to be bred to a good stallion. It was life and death for them.”
From these ancient tribal roots, enriched by centuries of breeding, the swiftest of the species would emerge—an amalgam of the fine-boned Arab and the heavier English-warrior stock. “The Thoroughbred is a magnificent horse,” he said. “But remember: He descended from the three Arab horses—the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian, the Byerley Turk.”
Of the three, the most important was the Darley Arabian, who was purchased as a 4-year-old in 1704 in the Syrian city of Aleppo by the British merchant Thomas Darley, who then shipped him home to his father, Richard. The Godolphin Arabian, foaled in 1724, also went through Syria on his way to England, where his blood mixed like an elixir with the Darley Arabian’s. Standing in Yorkshire, the Darley simply launched the most prolific of all Thoroughbred sire lines, one that today accounts for 90 percent of all racehorses. In short, the Darley begat a horse named Bartlett’s Childers, who begat Squirt, who in turn begat Marske. In 1763, ten years after the Godolphin Arabian died of remorse after accidentally stepping on his favorite cat, Marske consorted with a mare named Spiletta, a granddaughter of the mighty Godolphin himself. From that union, in 1764, fell a small roasted chestnut named Eclipse, so named in honor of a total eclipse of the sun that had occurred that year.
Undefeated on the courses, where he turned his races into bloodless exhibitions, Eclipse retired as a towering giant of the turf, prompting racing historian Theodore Cook to write, “He never had a whip flourished over him, or felt the rubbing of a spur, outfooting, outstriding and outlasting every horse that started against him.” As the stud, Eclipse became the golden whirlwind. Virtually all the Kentucky Derby winners of the past fifty years, including the three American Triple Crown winners of the 1970s—Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed—trace in a direct and unbroken male line, through sire and grandsire and great-grandsire and beyond, to the Darley Arabian by way of Eclipse.
Sheik Mohammed understood this passing of the blood as a young man at Cambridge, where he used to attend the races at nearby Newmarket. This was during that electric era when the great Nijinsky II—the 1970 English Triple Crown winner, another tail-male descendant of the Darley Arabian—was bounding like a wild stag around the heath. “I would go to Newmarket and sometimes watch by the fence,” the sheik said. “Many times I wasn’t allowed to go in. My allowance was £3 a week, and I could not afford it.”
Never lost upon him was the ancient tale of those three desert stallions. The sheik glanced off into the night now, the faintest smile on his face, as though the three were still out there, not far from where they’d gamboled from wadi to dune 300 years before.
“These three stallions went to England,” he said quietly, “and when I went there as a student, the ordinary English people could trace the Thoroughbred up to Eclipse, but beyond that they did not know where the Thoroughbred came from. And they pretend to say, ‘These are our horses!’ In 1976 I went to the yearling sales in England for the first time and I bought three horses, and one of them was Hatta, who won the Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood. An important race! And the people said, ‘Hey, where’d you come from? Who are you?’ And I said to them, ‘I come following my dream’s blood, because all these horses running were descended from my horses.’ It took some time for them to understand.”
The seminal event in the emergence of modern Dubai was announced on June 6, 1966, though it attracted but mild notice. In the next day’s issue of The New York Times, tucked in a small corner of the paper, on page 74, was a three-paragraph story that began, “The Continental Oil Company announced yesterday that a subsidiary, the Dubai Petroleum Company—also the operator for a group of companies of a concession in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Dubai—had found oil, apparently in commercial quantities. It is the first oil to be found in an area controlled by that sheikdom.”
That discovery of oil off the coast of Dubai ultimately led to a rebirth of the Thoroughbred sport across the Atlantic and to a period of unprecedented prosperity in the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky. As Europe had suffered through two world wars and the shambles they left behind, American breeders had hungrily imported the best of the European bloodstock. By the latter half of the twentieth century, U.S. racing was the strongest in the world, culminating in the 1970s with those three magnificent Triple Crown winners and those soaring flights of Ruffian, the fastest American filly of modern times; the unfortunate Alydar; the mighty geldings Forego and John Henry; and Kentucky Derby winners Riva Ridge, Foolish Pleasure and Spectacular Bid.
The Irish and English had arrived at the Kentucky sales in force by then—most notably in the figure of Robert Sangster, the heir to an English soccer-pools fortune—but in 1980 there followed Sheik Mohammed, his dreams newly fueled by some 350,000 barrels of oil a day.
His Highness slipped into Lexington, inauspiciously, just to scout the terrain He stayed at a small motel in town, at one point ordering coffee for his room, only to be told, “You’ll have to get your own coffee, sir.” When he returned the following year, leading a retinue of attendants, he sought to rent a few hotel rooms—presumably ones with room service—and to open a line of credit at Keeneland. The requests raised eyebrows on Versailles Pike. The rooms at the Hyatt had been reserved a year in advance, and lines of credit were not handed out like parking stickers. “We did not know who they were,” recalls James “Ted” Bassett III, then the president of Keeneland. “We were not familiar with the emirate. But Hyatt had just built a hotel in Dubai. And, mysteriously, things happened. I’m not aware of the machinations in the reservation department, but they got their rooms.”
“I come following my dream’s blood, because all these horses running were descended from my horses.’ It took some time for them to understand.”
And very quickly, their line of credit. In fact, just before the sale at Keeneland, Sheik Mohammed had made his presence felt at the nearby Fasig-Tipton venue. He was there to inspect a yearling for his eldest brother, Sheik Maktoum, when another swam into his field of vision. “Suddenly, I saw this filly coming toward the ring,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Look at her!’ She was so beautiful. I said, ‘That’s an Arab!’ The way she looks. The way she moves. So they led her to the ring, and I went back by myself to bid for her. No vet had looked at her for me. I had not inspected her. I just saw her! And I got her!”
He bought her that day for $325,0110, his first yearling purchase in Kentucky, and it turned out to be among the most important of his life. He called her Awaasif, which means “tempest” in Arabic, and two years later, after winning the Yorkshire Oaks in England, a major stake, she was named that country’s champion 3-year-old filly. Sheik Mohammed would spend $2.4 million at Keeneland that July, but none of his eight yearlings would match what Awaasif did for him on the track—and as a grandam in retirement.
Sheik Mohammed showed up at Keeneland again, in 1981, when Sangster and the Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos were keen to buy an attractive son of Northern Dancer, the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who had become the most prepotent sire of grass horses in the world. The sheik left Niarchos behind at $3 million and forced Sangster to bid $3.5 million before he let go of his neck. The sheik then went to $3.3 million for another son of Northern Dancer, out of Sweet Alliance. Alas, he got the best of it that day. The Sweet Alliance colt, named Shareef Dancer, ended up winning the Irish Sweeps Derby on the way to being syndicated as a stallion for $40 million.
In the years to come, no one dominated the sales like the Maktoums. Rich as Sangster and Niarchos were, they were no match for a family whose income now approached $10 million a day. And never was this clearer than on the night of July 19, 1983, when the sheik and the Brits, again led by Sangster, came to Keeneland intent on buying another strapping son of Northern Dancer. At the time, the world-record price for a yearling was $4.25 million, and as the bidding rose in the night like a boardwalk balloon, all eyes in the pavilion stared in wonder at the seven-digit electronic board above the sales ring. When it flashed $4.5 million, breaking the record, the crowd erupted in cheers.
And it wasn’t over yet. The bidding climbed, the two groups leapfrogging each other, to $5 million, to $5.5… $5.6…$5.7…$5.9…$6 million! It continued rising. Sangster bid $6.9 million, reported The Lexington Herald-Leader, and then Sheik Mohammed’s special adviser, Colonel Dick Warden, looked over to John Leat, the sheik’s personal assistant, for a sign of what to do. His Highness continued staring impassively ahead, his eyes never leaving the sales ring. Leat nodded. Warden bid $7million. The crowd cheered again.
The war went on. The bidding climbed to $8 million, to $8.6…$8.9…$9 million. The Sangster group went to $9.5 million. Here Warden, bidding $9.6, looked up and mouthed, “Jesus Christ.” The board would soon run out of digits. Bassett sat stunned. “We all held our breath,” he says. “Who would have thought, in our wildest dreams, that we would ever sell a horse for $10 million?”
Then Sangster took it there. Briefly, the board flashed seven zeros, starting all over again, as auctioneer Scott Caldwell announced the bid. And then Warden nodded again and the board lit up: $200,000. The Brits at last said no. The sheik swept from the room to wild applause. The colt, named Snaafi Dancer, turned out to be a bust; he developed a lung infection early and never raced. At stud he proved virtually impotent, siring only one foal, but that hardly mattered.
What did matter, in the end, was the nature of the Maktoums’ commitment. With money of no concern, the brothers kept buying, pouring all those millions into their racing and breeding operations, and they saved the sport in Britain even as they rose to rule it. Once the influx of cash and racing stock had reinvigorated the game, though, their success at the track set the horsemen to grumbling. Even the late Queen Mother was said to have muttered about “all that Arab gold.”
And yet, Sheik Mohammed, the man at the center of this whirl, barely flinched. Much like his father—Sheik Rashid bin Said al-Maktoum, who first led Dubai away from a dependence on oil—he makes decisions quickly and has a restless energy in carrying them out. Also like his father, who died in 1990, he likes to rule and is far more amiable and outgoing than either of his elder brothers. Those who know him, who have spent time around him, speak of the man in tones of reverence, even awe. “He’s got an aura around him, a light, a presence,” says jockey Frankie Dettori. “And he has the stamina of King Kong. He doesn’t sleep. He rides 120 kilometers on a horse. He’s opening this and doing that. He’s out looking at his racehorses. He’s flying here and there, talking on his cell phones. He’s got six. I don’t know how he does it.”
The sheik has embraced falconry and the racing and breeding of camels. He is also a poet, who pens his verse in Arabic (his friends refer to him as Sheikspeare), which is all one journalist needed to know to win an audience with him. Carol Flake was in Dubai to do a magazine story on camel racing in the Middle East. In time Sheik Mohammed came to know who she was—he would wave to her from afar as she mixed among the Bedouins—but despite her oft-repeated pleas to one of his closest aides, he put off granting her an interview. Flake had learned that the sheik’s favorite racing camel was a female named Mahna—a Ruffian in his herd of dromedaries—and the night before Mahna was to race, she composed a poem to her, writing it in the Arabic form known as the kaseeda, a kind of ode. (A published poet herself, Flake had written her doctoral thesis in English on the poet Wallace Stevens.)
Fortunately for the journalist, Mahna ran brilliantly and won. Immediately afterward Flake approached one of the sheik’s guards and told him she had written a poem about Mahna and wanted to show it to the sheik. Looking incredulous, the guard duly relayed the message. His Highness, who was out in his Land Rover watching the races, responded by asking her to read it on national television. And so she read her ode, “For Mahna”:
A ship that rides the wind-driven waves.
The camel, the dhow of the desert,
Rocks up and down the dunes.
Lending life and form to shifting sands.
Out of the desert she sails.
Rhythmic as a lullaby.
Fast as a falcon,
Enduring as stone.
In her stride are eons of journeys,
From oasis to wadi, camp to camp.
Where her forerunners roamed without roads.
She must race to prove her worth anew.
In this, she shares with her master
Not just the way to survive but the will to win.
Two days later, Flake was summoned to an audience with Sheik Mohammed. “I have observed how you have related to the Bedouins, my people,” he told her. “I appreciate that.” He also thanked her for the poem, reciting for her the last two lines. “Yes, that is the way of the camel,” he told her. The audience lasted two hours, and she came away from it with the powerful sense that his love for animals expressed a deeply felt wish, even a need, to stay in touch with his people and their shared roots—indeed, to keep the Bedouins themselves connected to their vanishing past. “He told me, ‘It is a way of being able to relate to my people. It is something we will always have in common,’” she says.
And then, with a wave of his hand, the sheik summoned an attendant, who appeared as if from nowhere, bearing a gift the sheik had clearly ordered for the occasion—a one-inch medallion cut from mother-of-pearl with a gold figure of a camel embossed on the front. The words FOR MAHNA were inscribed on the back. “It is still the most beautiful thing I own,” Flake says.
The sheik’s equine all-star team grew not from a noble wish to save his heritage but, rather, from a desperate need to preserve his sanity. By the early 1990s, the man had so many Thoroughbreds in Great Britain and France that he was employing thirty-six trainers. Unlike most owners, he was an accomplished horseman, and he often found himself at loggerheads with conditioners who did what they wanted, arguing with him over decisions or ignoring his wishes to point for a certain race. According to an old saw, it is common for trainers to treat owners like mushrooms: keep them in the dark and cover them with manure. Sheik Mohammed bristled at that notion. He had no interest in simply writing the checks and posing for pictures in the winner’s circle.
“I am a difficult owner because I want to be hands-on,” he said. “I want to be there. I want to see what is happening. I want to know what’s going on.”
American jockey Steve Cauthen, who began riding in Britain not long after he won the Triple Crown on Affirmed, ended up as the sheik’s main rider in the early ’90s, and he could understand the man’s displeasure. “It was frustration over not feeling as involved as he wanted to be,” says Cauthen. “The fact was, he got too big too quickly and had too many trainers. As a jockey, you didn’t know which horse was best, because all his trainers were sneaking around trying to beat one another. It was hard for Sheik Mohammed. It got out of control.”
From this chaos, Godolphin was born, what the Sunday Times of London would call Dubai’s “miracle in the desert.” As conceived, it gave Sheik Mohammed control over the family’s finest horses and a state-of-the-art training base in Dubai to which this crème de la crème could be brought every winter to prepare in the sun for the next year’s campaign. When the sheik revealed his plan in Britain, most trainers resisted it, scoffing at the very idea. In fact, he brought four of his English trainers to Dubai and took them straight to his training facility, with its new dirt surface.
“We were standing against the fence,” recalls the sheik, “and I said, ‘Gentlemen, would this racetrack produce me a classic winner?’ Now, they are top trainers, and they looked at the track and they looked at me, and one of them said, ‘What are you going to feed them, sand?’ I made a hard decision, but that is how Godolphin was formed. You can’t just sit back. You have to have an aim. You have to lead!”
In one stroke, the sheik had created his own racing ship. His fingerprints were everywhere, on everything. Godolphin has always had a trainer of record—Saeed bin Suroor, a former Dubai policeman, has held the job since 1995—but it’s the sheik who does the navigating. In the first year, 1994, he sent the filly Balanchine off from the Dubai desert and witnessed his own vindication. After winning the Epsom Oaks, one of England’s five classic races, she pulverized the colts in the Irish Derby. The next year, in a training feat that stunned the racing establishment, the sheik sent Lammtarra from Dubai and, in only the second start of the colt’s career and without the benefit of a single prep race, he won England’s most important race, the Epsom Derby; what made the victory sweeter still was that Lammtarra’s maternal grandam was old Awaasif.
The Dubai operation was perceived from the start as a global gateway for Godolphin, a springboard from which the stable could bound in all directions, and that year it served as precisely that. Godolphin scored significant victories, from Japan and Hong Kong in the East to France, Britain and the United States in the West. For all the stable’s success, though, what is missing today is that one triumph Sheik Mohammed has sought more passionately than any other, the one he began coveting that afternoon in 1999, when he leaned on the rail at Churchill Downs and saw the magic of the crowds. With a win in America’s most famous horse race, he could at last take hold of the exposure he so dearly desires. Three years ago, at Keeneland, the sheik approached trainer Bob Baffert, who had won the Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm and in 1998 with Real Quiet. The sheik explained to Baffert his strategy for winning the Derby. He told him about Godolphin’s winter workouts in Dubai. “Am I doing it the right way?” he asked.
“No,” Baffert said bluntly “The horses need to run in America.”
In 2000 the sheik began fielding a division of well-bred Godolphin 2-year-olds in California. He hired a notable Baffert assistant, Eoin (pronounced Owen) Harry, to get them accustomed to racing here in America. The best colt Harty has trained so far, Street Cry, missed the 2001 Derby with an injury, but he exploded as a 4-year-old. To date he has won the Dubai World Cup and the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, both in smashing style, and he is an early favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Arlington Park and the Eclipse Award as America’s Horse of the Year. There’s no telling what kind of talent Harty will find among the fifty hotbloods he now has in training.
Godolphin may be 0 for 4 in the Derby, not even close to winning with any of its starters, but Sheik Mohammed has been spending large sums of money at the sales—more than $40 million in three years at the Keeneland summer venue alone—much of it aimed at buying pedigrees more suited to running on the dirt. Designer genes aside, the question is whether the sheik’s approach to training them is prudent: The Kentucky Derby is the hardest race to win in America, if not the world, and shipping horses to Dubai and back only makes the challenge that much harder. Lammtarra’s victory in the Epsom Derby, off no prep races, was possible only because the Epsom is a twelve-furlong turf race in which the pace is usually soft through the early stages. Trainers say it does not require the rigorous conditioning of the Kentucky Derby—a ten-furlong cavalry charge on the dirt in which the horses often fly full bore from the outset and for which they are routinely toughened through a series of rough-and-tumble prep races. Epsom is Leisure World compared to Churchill Downs.
The Kentucky Derby is the hardest race to win in America, if not the world, and shipping horses to Dubai and back only makes the challenge that much harder.
Until this year, one of Sheik Mohammed’s unspoken goals was to be the first Arab to win the roses. To that end, he shelled out $2.3 million for a yearling son of Pulpit at the Keeneland sale in September 2000. He names his most promising horses after the emirate, and he called this colt Essence of Dubai. The horse won the United Emirates Derby last March, and many immediately saw him as a contender in Kentucky. Alas, in one of the diabolical vagaries of this game, a Saudi Arabian prince named Ahmed bin Salman—a joke-swapping, party-going media baron out of Riyadh paid $990,000 for a colt named War Emblem a mere three weeks before the Churchill classic. Bob Baffert saddled him, Victor Espinoza rode him, but the colt did all the work. Sailing on his own to the lead, unpressured, he turned for home and repulsed all challengers through the stretch, bounding off to win the Kentucky Derby by four lengths. War Emblem had raced four times prior to that, twice tiring in stakes races in New Orleans before finally coming to hand, and those preps on the dirt had clearly left him lean and wired. Essence of Dubai, who had run two prep races in the emirate, was never in the hunt and finished ninth, beaten by thirteen lengths.
The Arabs are hotly competitive with one another, and the prince, who would die of a heart attack eleven weeks later, could not resist sticking it to his Bedouin cousins in Dubai. “I am the first Arab to win it,” he gloated to the press.
Just thirty days earlier, while perched beneath the desert stars, Sheik Mohammed had waved off all suggestion that he needed to prep his horses in America. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” he said. “Maybe they are right. Maybe I am right. But if I am sure about something, I don’t stop because someone else is doubting me.”
Bolting straight up on his rug, he denounced the very thought that he might need to hire a proven Derby trainer like Baffert, spelling out his response with two letters: “N-O. No! Then Bob wins the Derby, not me! If I win the Derby, I don’t want somebody else getting credit. What would I achieve in that? Many people wanted me to hire Bob Baffert. He is a very good trainer. If he wins it, then everybody says Bob Baffert won it. Not the Dubai team—the team that lived in the desert during the winter.”
The Godolphin team could win it from Dubai, to be sure, but they may need another Secretariat or Seattle Slew to pull it off. And yet somehow it seemed perfectly fitting that after rising to leave, Sheik Mohammed drew the evening to a close with a parable about two animals. “When the gazelle wakes up in Africa,” he said, “he must make sure he outruns the fastest lion, or he will be killed. When the lion wakes up in Africa, he must make sure he outruns the slowest gazelle, or he will starve. I don’t care if you are a lion or a gazelle. When you wake up, you better start running!”
Was there a lesson hidden in the fire? Ah, but of course—might just one of his Kentucky Derby horses be as tough and battle hardened as that lion? As lean and fit as that gazelle?
[Photo Credit: Akshat Vats]