"WE ARE COMING TO THE U.S.A. WE ARE COMING SLOWLY. WE DO NOT WISH TO RUSH. BUT WE WILL BE THERE."
—HIS HIGHNESS SHEIKH MOHAMMED BIN RASHID AL MAKTOUM OF DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, JULY 1986.
But while we're waiting, let's look at a scenario, one out of the future-fantasy genre that typically has the Red army parachuting into Los Angeles after World War III goes wrong for the U.S.
The setting for this variation on the theme is Churchill Downs in Louisville, on the first Saturday in May of, let's say, 1990. It's 15 minutes to post time for the Kentucky Derby. There are 90,000 fans cramming the infield and the spring sunshine reflects off the brass tubas and euphoniums that are about to begin their rendition of My Old Kentucky Home. It would be hard to imagine a more quintessentially American moment in sport.
But suddenly a harsh noise cuts in—the chatter of a late-arriving helicopter. The maroon and white chopper comes in from the north, lands on the far side of the track and disgorges the owner of the Derby favorite. The mysterious horseman reaches his box precisely at post time.
December 1, 1986
He is Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum of Dubai, a short, slim man in his late 30's, and he's as precise in his appearance as he is in his timing: neatly bearded, and buttoned up in a three-piece suit that makes no concession to the 85° heat. A few minutes later he will move down to the winner's enclosure, among the roses and the microphones. There he will smile a little and stroke the nose of his colt, a beautiful animal who has just won the 116th Kentucky Derby, as the 6-5 odds flashing on the matrix board had forecast he would.
For the media, though, it is no big story. After all, the Sheikh's maroon and white silks came first past the post in the 1989 Derby as well as the Belmont; his Triple Crown hopes were dashed when a horse owned by his brother, Sheikh Hamdan, took the Preakness. And already, on this Derby Day, there are strong signs that a Maktoum will once again be the leading owner in the U.S., crushing the opposition just as he did earlier in 1990 in the Flamingo Stakes. In that race at Hialeah, he and his three brothers saddled five of the seven runners in the field—and watched their horses finish 1-2-3-4-5.
No, none of this could be classified as a big surprise. Probably about 10%—and the finest 10% at that—of American thoroughbreds in training are now Arab-owned. Strangely enough, nobody in the American racing world seems to be upset about it. Not even the $2 bettor, even though he has enjoyed a snigger or two at the Arab names of some of the horses he has been invited to back (Raggaas springs to mind). That's because he is as aware as the most exalted members of The Jockey Club in New York that, thanks to Arab money, the world's finest bloodstock, which for so long has been stabled beyond the eastern shores of the Atlantic, at last is returning to the U.S. As a consequence, there has been a dramatic upturn in the quality of American racing.
Meantime, unlike many sheikhs who have flaunted their petrodollars in California real estate, those now in American racing have successfully cultivated a reserved, dignified image that brought its reward when two of the most senior of them were elected to that same Jockey Club on Madison Avenue.
O.K., cut. End of fantasy, right?
For the moment, anyhow, yes. But fiddle with that scenario, bring it to the present and switch the setting to England. Now watch fantasy dissolve into reality.
Last year almost 50 Arab owners had winners on English tracks.
Altogether, it's thought, better than 10% of English bloodstock is now Arab-owned, much of it shipped from the U.S. And it is the Maktoum family of Dubai that is the dominant force. In 1985 Sheikh Mohammed took three of the five English classics, and his eldest brother. Sheikh Maktoum Al Maktoum, Dubai's crown prince, took a fourth. And as for that imaginary result in the '90 Flamingo, why, this year, at the St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, two of the Maktoum brothers, Mohammed and Hamdan, saddled five runners in the seven-horse field. And, yes, their horses came in 1-2-3-4-5.
At last count the brothers—Maktoum, Hamdan, Mohammed and Ahmed—owned almost 1,000 horses, mares and foals, including the approximately 600 they have in training. In England alone they have around 500 spread among 26 trainers.
And indisputably, in terms of horseflesh, it is Sheikh Mohammed who is Big Brother, though chronologically he is the third-born. Sheikh Mohammed has about 280 horses in training, some 150 of them U.S.-bred. That figure does not include the 36 yearlings he bought for $21,582,000 at Keeneland this year or his Saratoga buys in August.
To all of this, the red-blooded American at the $2 window might well say: So what? Who cares what happens in England, where they race the wrong way round, on grass, and have bookies shouting the odds right there at the track?
There's a short answer to that. Ten years ago those same English bookies might have laughed and given you 1,000-1 against an Arab winning an English classic. And even if Arab participation in U.S. racing is still on a very small scale, that could change swiftly.
For now, Sheikh Mohammed, who is a romantic where horses are concerned, relishes the color and tradition of the English racing scene. He expresses an almost childlike delight in seeing his racing colors in competition with those of Queen Elizabeth II. The much smaller purses that English racing offers do not unduly concern someone who controls a reported income of nearly $2 billion a year. And one also detects an unexpressed fear of anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S.
From a purely practical viewpoint, however, English racecourses are more convenient than American tracks if you're traveling from Dubai, even if you have a 747 at your disposal, as this Sheikh does. Indeed, Sheikh Mohammed admits he has been to the races (as opposed to buying bloodstock) in the U.S. only once, when he attended the Laurel International in Maryland three years ago. And he pleaded affairs of state (he is U.A.E.'s Minister of Defense) to explain his absence from Aqueduct in 1985 when his great filly Pebbles won the Breeders' Cup Turf Race.
All the same, in spite of his disappointment at the recent Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, where two of his horses were favorites but finished out of the money, there is a strong perception among racing insiders that Sheikh Mohammed will not be content forever with his English conquests. "I know what good racing there is in America," he said recently, and those close to him are sure that he is sincere when he declares, "We are coming to the U.S.A."
In another way, of course, in a highly significant way, the Maktoums already have come to America in regal style. With their wholesale purchasing of the cream of the U.S.'s yearling crop in the past few years, they have been largely responsible for the extraordinary shift in the balance of power—from North America to Europe—that is now becoming apparent.
A year ago, Joe Hirsch, doyen of U.S. turf writers, lamented in the Daily Racing Form: "Is the drain on quality beginning to tell? Many think that it is. European horsemen...were surprised to learn of important victories in the U.S. by...imports...who were moderate animals when they raced in their native lands. There is a perception that our form is now from five to 10 pounds below the level in England and France."
Despite a generally poor European showing at this year's Breeders' Cup, Hirsch sees no reason to change his mind. "The best horses racing in Europe now have come from America," he said recently. "And, more and more, they are staying in Europe. Nothing can be done about it. It is a circumstance of our times. And the Maktoums have purchased and bred so much that they ought to be on their way by now.
"At the moment the Maktoums are not a factor in American racing, but they could be. They'll have so many horses that they'll have to have stables here eventually. They are very strong people."
Hirsch adds wryly, "The American bloodhorse business is one of the few, one of the very few, of our industries that shows a favorable balance of payments." In other words, however much it might please the U.S. Treasury, this country is selling more horses abroad than it is buying. And what is being sold is the cream of the crop. "The world's best bloodstock is now returning to Europe." Lord Manton, then the senior steward of the English Jockey Club, openly exulted last year. It seemed only fitting that Martha Layne Collins, the governor of Kentucky, along with a gaggle of other notables from that state, flew to Dubai last February, courtesy of Sheikh Mohammed, and watched the camel races. Or that the Keeneland Association Inc. took a full page in the Daily Racing Form to plug its Selected Yearling Sale—on July 4th, for heaven's sake—and covered it with an Adolf Schreyer painting of a mounted Arab warrior, with a headline declaring, 400 YEARS AGO THE ONLY WAY TO WIN WAS WITH THE BEST HORSE.
Still and all, the patriotic American racing fan might hope that the worst is over. Isn't all that crazy, seven-digit bid-ding-up of prices by foreigners over and done with? Wasn't the average price at Keeneland this year down by something approaching 24%? And wasn't the average price at the August Saratoga sale only $187,351, the lowest since the comparatively sane year of 1982? And won't the worldwide collapse of oil prices curb the spending by all those sheikhs? And anyway, aren't their stables full already, like Paul Mellon's?
Well, ol' buddy, you are right about those prices, but that doesn't mean that the shipping of much of America's finest bloodstock to Europe is easing up. The Invasion of the Horse Snatchers is being stepped up. Foreigners actually bought more of the best American yearlings last summer than they did in 1985—18 more at Keeneland, 9 more at Saratoga. They just paid less per horse, is all. "This year," Sheikh Mohammed would say later, "we did not have to fight so hard for the blood we wanted. When we started to build, we had nothing, so we had to pay more. If someone else wanted that blood, we had to go for it, very hard. But I think now that those days are over."
Almost certainly that's true if you're talking about the kind of bidding Sheikh Mohammed found himself in at Keeneland in 1983. That was the year he paid $10.2 million for a yearling he called Snaafi Dancer, which was syndicated as a 4-year-old and never raced. Even so, this year he and his brothers stayed for the third, least prestigious, day of the sales in Lexington, and when they took off in their 747, they had spent more money than they did in 1985. The $44,212,000 exceeded the $40,970,000 they had spent the previous year, but they acquired considerably more—71 yearlings compared with 16 in '85. On the two select days alone they purchased 57 yearlings—more than 20% of the cream of America's crop.
So the hemorrhaging continues, although Sheikh Mohammed is full of reassurances that he has no desire to revolutionize the sport. "In a way," he will tell you, warming to one of his favorite themes, "we are only reclaiming our heritage, though it is one that we are happy to share."
It is an inarguable fact that every one of the world's thoroughbreds can trace its ancestry, in the direct male line, to Arab bloodstock brought to Europe between the late 17th and early 18th centuries. And it fast becomes apparent that the Sheikh is a double-dyed romantic when he starts to speak of horses in the soft, understated English that he learned as a student at Cambridge and later at Mons Barracks, a British army officers' training establishment.
"The horse, the falcon and the saluki live with the Arab, as his best friends," he said late one evening last summer, in the suite he keeps in London's fashionable Hyatt Carlton Tower hotel, where he assumes an almost proprietary air. Relaxed, he had changed from his European clothes into a long white jibba, his feet bare in leather sandals. A manservant brought a tray with coffee in tiny silver cups. And then the rich furnishings seemed to shimmer and change into a desert landscape as he spoke in a silky, nearly hypnotic voice of a world of Arab chivalry that in reality vanished hundreds of years ago.
"What he needs to eat, he catches with the falcon and the saluki," he continued. "But it is his horse, in war, that will get him out of trouble. In Arabia there was selective breeding of horses centuries ago. A warrior would ride his camel to the battle, leading his horse. For the fight itself, though, he would mount the horse.
"And that was the start of the bloodhorse, because a man would say. This other man has a good stallion. I will send my mare to him.' At that time the European horses were big, heavy, like farm horses, bred to carry men in armor...."
That's a little exaggerated. The early days of organized horse racing in Europe featured ponies as well as bigger horses, but it is entirely true that it was the injection of fine-boned, fast Arabian bloodstock that made the modern thoroughbred. There might have been 40 Arabian stallions imported altogether, but it is from just three of them that a direct male line can be traced—the romantically named Byerley Turk, the Godolphin Arabian and the Darley Arabian. (A visitor to New York's Belmont Park can meet all three in their sculptured form at the Fasig-Tipton building across the street from the track.) Not for nothing, then, does Sheikh Mohammed call the agency that handles his bidding at thoroughbred sales the Darley Management Stud.
The Darley Arabian line eventually became the most important of the three in U.S. racing. From this line came Epsom Derby winners Bahram, Mahmoud and Blenheim II, which, when they were shipped out to stud in America, contributed much to the revival of the American thoroughbred industry in the '40s.
And now the reversal of that movement is especially savored by members of the English racing establishment who are old enough to recall the darkest days of World War II. The Aga Khan (father of Aly Khan, who married Rita Hayworth. remember?) caused some consternation in Britain by spending the war years in neutral Switzerland. He then compounded the offense, as far as the racing-crazy British public was concerned, by shipping his finest stallion, Bahrain, the winner of the 1935 English Triple Crown, to the U.S. The plump leader of the Moslem Ismaili sect was probably the richest man in the world at the time and certainly the owner of its finest thoroughbreds. It was not until 1970 that another horse, Nijinsky II, won the English Triple Crown. The transatlantic traffic continued with the speedy Nasrullah (who would sire Bold Ruler), followed by other valued bloodstock right through the '50s and '60s. Vaguely Noble came to the U.S., Sea Bird, Ribot...the movement was unending, it seemed. With the early postwar power of the dollar, the heartland of the thoroughbred had shifted from Newmarket Heath in England to Kentucky.
And now, paradoxically, another enormously wealthy stranger from the East is changing the direction of the flow again. A few hours before he talked so passionately in the Hyatt Carlton Tower of the tradition of the Arab steed, Sheikh Mohammed had gone to the races (by helicopter, how else?) at Goodwood, a green jewel of a track 60 miles southwest of London. His 3-year-old filly, Sonic Lady, was running in the Sussex Stakes, a mile on grass worth approximately $390,000. She had cost him $500,000 at the 1984 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July sale. And she went off as a 6-5 favorite at Goodwood.
She hung at the back of the field, relaxed, until the last quarter mile. Then she moved up front slowly, past three 4-year-olds and Bold Arrangement, the colt that was second in this year's Kentucky Derby with Steve Cauthen aboard. Sonic Lady won Europe's most important mile going away by 1½ lengths.
Four days earlier, Dancing Brave had won the prestigious $355,000 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot. Sheikh Mohammed had bought a majority share of Dancing Brave's eventual syndication package from Prince Khaled Abdullah, a cousin in the Saudi royal family who likes to be known in racing circles as plain Mr. K. Abdullah. Sired by Lyphard, bred at Glen Oak Farm in Kentucky, Dancing Brave has been declared by many fine judges to be the best to race in England since Nijinsky IE and it was no surprise when Mr. K. Abdullah, in whose colors he ran, received the trophy from the Queen Mother.
And this fall there were further spectacular successes for the pair in France. Sonic Lady's win in the Prix du Moulin made her the unchallenged top miler in Europe, and Dancing Brave's superb come-from-behind win in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October was his finest moment. With hindsight, it's easy now to see how shipping both horses to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup, with the attendant jet lag and climatic change, was the worst kind of gamble. Dancing Brave's trainer, Guy Harwood, had almost pulled him out a couple of days before the race; he had been sweating badly in the stuffy, brick quarantine shed, had worked at little better than half speed and had lost weight. Though Dancing Brave finished fourth, behind Manila, Joe Hirsch was moved to write that he "lost no stature at all in defeat." And of Sonic Lady, Hirsch wrote that "she had nothing to prove when she arrived and no excuses in departing. Her reputation belongs to history."
More important than any single race result, though, was the fact that, instead of returning to the U.S. to sire more blue-grass stock. Dancing Brave will stand at Dalham Hall Stud, near Newmarket, one of the five studs that the Sheikh owns in the British Isles. Dancing Brave will be joining another Kentucky-bred stallion who never made it home, Shareef Dancer, syndicated in 1983 for a still-world-record $40 million.
It should be noted, further, that one of the brakes on the frantic pace of Maktoum purchasing has now become inoperative. The brothers had been preceded by another raiding foreigner, Robert Sangster, the man who is credited with changing the horse-breeding game from a hobby for the very rich to a tough profession. At first, the Sangster-Maktoum dueling in U.S. salerooms was savage, but now only a single aspect of that rivalry remains, the one fought out on the racetracks of England.
As early as 1984, to the consternation of some U.S. breeders, there had been signs that a deal was being worked out between the Englishman and the Arabs. Those rumors received highly publicized confirmation the following winter, when Sheikh Mohammed invited Sangster and some friends out to Dubai for a jolly weekend. There was camel racing and falconry, and included in the party, presumably by design, was a prominent British racing journalist who upon returning duly reported the junket in the then Sangster-owned horse magazine, Pacemaker International.
It was there in the Persian Gulf, many believe, that the treaty of Dubai, 1985, was signed, the one that forced prices down at Keeneland in 1986. There was a hiccup early on in last summer's sale, though. A short duel developed between the members of the new accord, so the speculation goes, because a particular Nijinsky II colt was just the 12th yearling being offered on the first morning, and the professional agents who bid on behalf of Sangster and the Maktoums, respectively, hadn't had time to go through the catalog together. The bidding ended when the Arabs dropped out to let Sangster have the colt at $3.2 million, perhaps after a whispered, mid-bidding deal.
It is hard to know how the foreign invasion is going to be turned back. At present, the native resistance movement consists largely of Eugene Klein, the onetime owner of the San Diego Chargers, for whom trainer D. Wayne Lukas bids, and Georgia aircraft manufacturer and Kentucky farm owner Allen Paulson. So far, though, it is not clear what the consequences of the new tax law will be for the business of owning racing thoroughbreds, and the only certainty is that the Maktoums write their own tax laws in Dubai.
Sheikh Mohammed has been steadily increasing the number of horses he has in training in the U.S. Last year he had only six, this year it's up to 14. The numbers are very small, at least for now. Meanwhile, his brother Maktoum Al Maktoum now owns Gainsborough Stud in Kentucky so called to match the other Gainsborough Stud that he owns in Berkshire, England, and brother Hamdan has Shadwell Stud in Kentucky, in addition to Shadwell Stud in Norfolk, England.
And in England there are those who, from the start, have looked on the benefits of the Arab invasion as faerie gold, liable not to be there when you wake up. The Maktoums now have such a massive stake in the country's bloodstock that they could, at will, start the pendulum on another swing, this time from East to West.
"I probably encouraged the Arabs in the first place, but I'd rather they spent their money on our leisure industry than that they should go off and buy football teams in America," Sangster was reported as saying recently. It might be a strain to envision Sheikh Mohammed in his box at Texas Stadium, looking down on his new sporting investment. But visualizing him in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs does not require that much of a stretch.
In another winner's circle, at Goodwood last summer, Sheikh Mohammed stroked the nose of Sonic Lady. "Do you see her looking at me?" he asked. "She knew she had won." He permitted himself the luxury of a smile. "It gave me huge pleasure to see my lady beat the men," he said.
Alas, Sheikh Mohammed would not experience that same pleasure in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. But that doesn't mean he's dismayed. You will have learned by now that he does not operate on a Western time frame. He is in no rush.
However, the Maktoums can also strike fast. The Australians discovered this on Nov. 4, when Sheikh Hamdan's At Talaq, a 10-1 shot, took the $419,000 Melbourne Cup, the Southern Hemisphere's biggest racing prize. And what is the size of the Maktoum's bloodstock empire Down Under? Well, uh, so far it's just this one horse—which is perhaps why the Maktoums didn't show up personally for the race, preferring to watch a live TV transmission specially beamed into Dubai. Now there is talk in the Aussie horse community of unlocking the floodgates and letting in the Arabs wholesale.
Now substitute the Kentucky Derby for the Melbourne Cup, change the accent from Aussie to Kentucky, and think about the future for a minute. You might end up one of thoroughbred racing's true prophets.