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From horse enthusiast to world leader in racing and breeding industries during a 40 year journey that continues today


Popular music fans, especially those of the Beatles, will remember the opening lyrics of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: ‘It was 20 years ago today…’ Switch to racing, of the equine variety, on the Flat in England and, for Sheikh Mohammed, ‘It was 40 years ago next Tuesday’. I can picture furrowed brows, twinned with head scratching and a chorus of: ‘What was?’ So, let us embark on a journey and rewind to the year 1977; the venue Brighton Racecourse; the date 20th June; the occasion, the victory of a juvenile filly named Hatta; the relevance?

She was a first winner for a new owner in the sport, a young Emirati royal, Sheikh Mohammed, being represented by the first racehorse he owned. Few present on the Sussex Downs that day could have realised what a significant moment they had just witnessed and what a dramatic impact the young Sheikh and his family would have on the racing industry, worldwide, over the next four decades. An impact arguably more far reaching now than ever with the Maktoum family synonymous with the sport of racing, in the highest echelons, around the globe.

Sheikh Mohammed’s love of horses is renowned and they have always been an important part of his life. As a young man, Sheikh Mohammed was captivated by the power, elegance, speed and grace of horses and he rode bareback races with his friends on the sands of Jumeirah Beach. He himself has recounted the story of his first race, on a seemingly unwanted mare, Sawdah Um Halag, whom he nursed to health and soundness. Taught by his mother, he learned to inspect the skeletal aspects of the feet and legs, as well as how to care for the hoofs to aid recuperation.

Three months of training the mare, swimming with her in the sea, letting her run loose to return to him on his command and she was ready for a race. The partnership fought gallantly, beaten just a length. During his studies in Cambridge, Sheikh Mohammed attended his first race meeting at Newmarket where he watched Royal Palace win the 2000 Guineas in May 1967. Ten years later Hatta started a juggernaut rolling, following that Brighton victory by landing the Group 3 Molecomb Stakes at Glorious Goodwood the following month.

Sheikh Mohammed’s passion for horses grew into a major investment in bloodstock and has resulted in the growth of the world’s largest and most global racing team, Godolphin, as well as the successful stallion operation, Darley. When Hatta began this epic journey for Sheikh Mohammed, his racing colours were recorded as ‘royal blue, white chevron, blue cap, white star’. Less than three years later, they would be replaced by ‘maroon, white sleeves, maroon cap with white star’. These silks were recognised worldwide. John Dunlop trained Hatta, making her second racecourse appearance at Brighton having finished sixth in a massive field of 26 on her debut at Sandown.

Starting favourite, the daughter of Realm eased to victory under Ron Hutchinson, a leading Australian jockey with the pair in full control from over a furlong out in the maiden over an extended 5f. Hutchinson recalls: “Hatta was a very nice filly and won easily at Brighton. She had improved from her first start and, as history proved, carried on progressing. “She was quick and very determined; always an ideal combination and, looking back, it was great to be so closely associated with such an important breakthrough victory.” Sheikh Mohammed was ‘up and running’ and his passion for English racing already fuelled, was reportedly further fired by his meeting Colonel Dick Warden.

Accompanying a batch of horses, sourced by the Curragh Bloodstock Agency on behalf of the mounted division of Dubai police, the Sheikh immediately took to the Colonel who, as well as being a World War II hero, also included Thoroughbred racehorse trainer and amateur jockey on his CV. He was charged with the task of sourcing the Sheikh’s initial bloodstock interests and Dunlop was the man to whom they turned to train them. He said: “The Colonel was not only exceptionally entertaining but a fantastic judge of horseflesh.

The first time he went to Keeneland for Sheikh Mohammed he came back with two yearlings: one became Awaasif and the other became Jalmood.” Awaasif, a Group One winner herself, was to foal Snow Bride, the dam of Lammtarra, the Saeed bin Suroor-trained winner of the 1995 Derby at Epsom. Awaasif was by Blushing Groom, as was subsequent Group Three winner and successful sire, Jalmood. After their initial encounter, Walden reported to his CBA colleagues: “I met this charming Arab gentleman who would like to buy a few horses.

I think that one day he could be a very big owner.” That would prove to be an understatement! In 1976, Sheikh Mohammed, Warden and Dunlop attended the October Yearling Sales at Newmarket, buying three horses, including the aforementioned Hatta. Dunlop explained: “Initially, we were instructed to buy only colts, but quite late on Sheikh Mohammed asked we purchase a filly for him. Pretty well all the fillies within his budget had already been sold, and very little was left for us except this Realm filly, who did not exactly inspire us with confidence.

She was very small indeed and crooked in one leg, but the Sheikh wanted a filly, so we bought her. “When meeting Sheikh Mohammed for the first time I was immediately struck by his charm. While he clearly knew a great deal about horses, he was very keen to learn all he could about English racing. “He bombarded me with questions about the preparation of Thoroughbreds, and while he understood horses as a species, he was trying to reconcile his own understanding of the subject with the principles of training finely tuned equine athletes.”

From Brighton, Hatta went to Salisbury, easily landing the Myrobella Stakes, before a similarly straightforward success at Sandown in the Raynes Park Stakes. It was Glorious Goodwood next and the Group 3 Molecomb Stakes which, in 1977, was restricted to 2yo fillies. And the rest, as they say, is history; hot favourite, Amaranda, winner of the Queen Mary at Royal Ascot, had no answer to the imperious Hatta and a first big race success was secured for the fledgling owner. A multitude would follow with the new maroon and white silks carried to endless victories and securing Sheikh Mohammed the British Champion Owner accolade on nine occasions.

First crowned in 1985 he landed the title in each of the following four years, again in the three years 1991 - 1993, as well as 1997. His run of success was only interrupted by his brother, Sheikh Hamdan, in 1990, 1994 and 1995, as well as Godolphin, in 1996. That dovetails perfectly to Godolphin, masterminded and created by Sheikh Mohammed in 1993 to campaign the very best of the Maktoum bloodstock on the world stage, promoting Dubai in the process. That inaugural Godolphin British championship title has been replicated on nine further occasions, namely 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2012, 2013 and 2015.

The list of equine luminaries sporting both the maroon and white and, more recently the all blue of Godolphin, is literally endless and would require a whole issue of Al Adiyat to list individually. Attributed to Sheikh Mohammed as owner, such superstars as Indian Skimmer, Diminuendo, Old Vic, In The Wings, Keen Hunter, Barathea, Opera House, Intrepidity, Pennekamp, Winged Love, Casamento and King’s Theatre would be an impressive list but one which is barely the tip of a very imposing iceberg. Perhaps ironically, the last named, King’s Theatre, was runner-up to Balanchine in the Irish Derby of 1994.

Whereas Cutwater, at Nad Al Sheba in late 1992, was the first official Godolphin runner, it was the Epsom Oaks success of Balanchine which was attributed with announcing the name of Godolphin on the international stage. She has been followed by a host of star performers in the all blue, in which, like Lammtarra, she did not actually race. Of those who did, the most famous was Dubai Millennium but also include Daylami, Moonshell, Halling, Mark Of Esteem, Cape Verdi, Almutawakel, Cape Cross, Swain, Street Cry, Fantastic Light, Sakhee, Kazzia, Moon Ballad, Electrocutionist, Ramonti, Marienbard, Grandera, Sulamani, Dubawi, Shamardal, Rio De La Plata, Blue Bunting, African Story and Dawn Approach, to name but a smattering of an endless collection.

A plethora of the aforementioned horses, as well as far more not listed individually, have gone on to produce fellow star racehorses. This list, to pick just two, include Singspiel, who carried Sheikh Mohammed’s own colours to victory in the 1997 Dubai World Cup and sired Godolphin’s winner of the same race in 2003, Moon Ballad. Sheikh Mohammed’s favourite racehorse, Dubai Millennium, landed the 2000 Dubai World Cup but sadly only sired one crop after his retirement. However, that one batch of progeny included Dubawi, an Irish 2000 Guineas winner and now the star of Sheikh Mohammed’s European arm of his Darley operation.

He is also renowned for his generosity which was perfectly demonstrated when he purchased New Approach from Jim Bolger; sporting the green silks of his wife, Princess Haya, the colt numbered the Derby at Epsom among his big race triumphs. America, mainland Europe, Australia and Japan are others to have seen the influence of Sheikh Mohammed, Godolphin and Darley, operating in the highest echelons of their racing industry. The Thoroughbred racehorses all trace back to three Purebred Arabian stallions, the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk. With his Godolphin base at Al Quoz and through Nad Al Sheba and now Meydan, Sheikh Mohammed has returned the racehorse to its point of origin.

Sheikh Mohammed is, of course, a globally renowned endurance rider; in 2010 he led the UAE team to glory in the World Equestrian Games at Lexington, himself finishing second in the individual category. Two years later, Sheikh Mohammed landed the individual Endurance World Championship at Euston Park, while leading the UAE team to victory in the team event. With his sons following in his footsteps, both in the saddle and as Thoroughbred owners, his legacy is assured. But both the world of endurance and his heritage are separate chapters among his countless achievements registered throughout many fields, not just the sporting arena.

His vision and creation of the Dubai World Cup, which followed on from an annual international jockeys’ challenge at Nad Al Sheba and preceded the Dubai International Racing Carnival, or Dubai World Cup Carnival as we now know it, have truly propelled UAE racing onto the world stage. And who knows what may be in store next in an amazing winning story, which began, 40 years ago, at Brighton with a filly called Hatta.

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15 Feb 2018
Issue Number: Issue 636
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