In these challenging times, it's hard to have sympathy for Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (or Sheik Mohammed as he's more familiarly known to British racing fans). With a personal wealth estimated at almost $20 billion he holds sway over the emirate of Dubai and has been responsible for developing the country into the major hub for tourism, business and travel in the UAE and one of the most important in the whole Arab region. Godolphin and Darley Bloodstock are his family's personal racing vehicles, and both are behemoths of the global racing scene.
Sheik Mohammed, originally in his own colours, and latterly through Godolphin and Darley has made a massive and inarguably positive impact on the British racing scene.
His first winner was with Hatta at Brighton in 1977, he went on to have a long and very successful career as an owner in partnership with the likes of Henry Cecil and Steve Cauthen in the UK and Andre Fabre and Cash Asmussen in France. High profile success followed with legendary horses such as Oh So Sharp, Diminuendo, Singspiel, Soviet Star, Pennekamp and Carnegie all carrying his famous maroon and white colours of Darley, who was destined to become one of the leading stallion operations on the globe.
In 1995 there came a high profile rift with Henry Cecil. This was as a result of arguments between the pair on the campaigning of Mark of Esteem during his two-year-old career, Cecil wanted to run the colt in the Royal Lodge at Ascot but couldn't get permission from Sheik Mohammed as the owner maintained the horse was not fit to race. Mark of Esteem had a bone spur and suffered from intermittent lameness and the Sheik would not let him run, instead waiting for a maiden at Goodwood at the back-end of July that he won easily before being put away for his 3-y-o campaign. From that moment the Godolphin operation blossomed into full flame and the Sheik's horses now switched to the famous blue silks.
Godolphin and Coolmore
Coolmore and Godolphin are two of the 800lb gorillas of racing, both on the track and in the world of breeding, and they face off against each other on track and in the auction ring all over the world. In the beginning, their relationship was marked by a friendly rivalry with each investing in the other's bloodlines but all that changed at the Keeneland sales in 2005 when the Maktoum family spent $6o million and none of it went on the progeny of Coolmore Stallions, whether this was the cause of the rift or whether something had happened behind the scenes we'll never know, the spat lasted for 12 years but there seems to have been something of a recent thawing between the two parties and there have been yearling transactions between the two over the past 3 years.
The Zarooni Doping Scandal
When Sheik Mohammed and Henry Cecil split, the Sheik's horses ran in Godolphin's blue silks and were trained by Said Bin Suroor (and in the main ridden by Frankie Dettori). Said Bin Suroor was crowned Champion Trainer 4 times and his most notable winners were Mark of Esteem in the 2,000 Guineas and Cape Verdi in the 1,000 Guineas, he did train Lamtarra to win the Derby but not for Godolphin.
Mohammed al Zarooni first came into the Godolphin in 2010 and he started off straight on the front foot taking the English 2011 1,000 Guineas with Blue Bunting and the following year's St. Leger with Enke... but they were to be his only English Classic successes. In an April 2013 raid on Godolphin's Moulton Paddock stables Zarooni was found to have, allegedly aided by 3 others, administered a cocktail of anabolic steroids banned by the BHA on 15 horses (numbers vary from 11-22 horses) including 1,000 Guineas ante-post favourite; Certify. All the horses involved were banned from racing for 6 months and in a few weeks later the BHA banned al Zarooni from having any involvement in the sport for 8 years. This was a massive blow to both Godolphin's and Sheik Mohammed's personal reputation (although there was absolutely no evidence that the Sheik had any involvement), Zarooni was banned for life by the Emirates Racing Authorities and Charlie Appleby took over as Godolphin's lead trainer
There were persistent rumblings that the BHA's investigation and enquiry had been rushed in order to speedily exonerate the Sheik and the transcript was never published in full, and no other individual has ever been charged with any involvement. In September, there was fresh controversy with former London police chief Lord Stevens called in to oversee an internal inquiry into the Sheikh's worldwide equine interests. This followed the seizures of illegal veterinary drugs both from stables near Newmarket and a on a private jet. Nothing new came to light and the inquiry more or less just rubber-stamped the BHA's original findings.
Princesses Latifa, Shamsa and HRH Princess Haya
Princess Haya of Jordan is the daughter of the late King Hussain and a former Olympic equestrian. She married Sheikh Mohammed in 2004 and the marriage seemed solid and she regularly appeared by the Sheik's side at many high-profile public events including on many English racecourses. But things started to unravel for the couple when she became suspicious of the events around the 'rescuing' of his two daughters, Shamsa and Latifa, whose freedom appears 'restricted somewhat' in Dubai (that was a careful choice of words!).
As she became increasingly suspicious of the Sheik's account of events, she claims she was herself subject to threats and intimidation and was divorced by the Sheik under Sharia law without even notifying her (hell hath no fury as a Sheik scorned!). As a result, she fled to Britain in 2019 with their young children and filed for divorce. A judge in a UK family court in March 2020 found that 'on the balance of probabilities' the Sheik had ordered the abduction of Shamsa while he was on British soil, and had also had Latifa snatched from a yacht in the Indian Ocean, then imprisoning both daughters in Dubai... as well as intimidating and harassing Princess Haya. He seemed to compound these findings by subsequently denying access to UK detectives who applied for travel-permits to pursue the story in Dubai
The Sheik appealed against the decision and tried to keep the story out of the public eye claiming it was a strictly 'private matter' but his appeal was denied. It was a tremendous embarrassment for the Sheik in the full glare of the Global media and his previously close relationship with the Queen was left in tatters as she sought to distance herself from him in public. Although it is unthinkable that the BHA would ever put such a pillar of British racing through their 'fit and proper person' test, there must be question marks as to whether he'd actually pass.
Covid-19, Pinatubo and Shamardhal
And to bring this story to a close there is a massive dose of bad luck when it can be argued that all that has gone before is down to poor human design, rather than chance.
Godolphin has lived for many long years in Coolmore's long shadow. In the English and Irish Classics alone, since 2009, the score is Godolphin 6 Coolmore 41! Given the massive investment that Godolphin has made in bloodstock over the years (which I imagine is far greater than Coolmore's) it is a very poor return indeed and in any other business sector... clearly unacceptable.
Then along comes Pinatubo... winner of all 6 races by a total of 25 lengths... Champion European 2-y-o... rated 128, 2lb higher than the legendary Frankel... red hot antepost favourite for the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas and Derbies... the saviour of Godolphin. How he went off at 3/1 on debut in a Class 4 at Wolverhampton, knowing what we now know, is one of the great racing mysteries of my punting lifetime!
But COVID-19 is threatening to derail everything. The 2020 Classic generation is probably going to have severe problems in justifying their place in history, no matter what their exploits on the track. With a truncated season and a European pattern that is threatening to unravel, campaigns are going to be a nightmare to plan with no firm dates set and not enough time between the traditional trials and the Classics proper. The fact that Classics might also have to run without overseas opposition could further devalue the form and all this has potentially massive negative ramifications for this season's top 3-y-o's as breeding stock.
Shamardal by Giants Causeway was also Champion European 2-y-o in 2004 and the winner of 4 Group One races, he was unbeaten in his racing career and remarkably never headed in any of his races! Retired early due to injury, he wasn't an immediate success at stud but showed steady improvement and became one of the leading sires in Europe, his 2019 2-y-o crop included Pinatubo, Earthlight and Victor Ludorum rated 1st, 2nd and 13th respectively in the European two-year-old Classification. He had become one of Darley's cornerstone stallions and was set for his best ever 3-y-o crop, looking long odds-on to get at least one Classic if not six (!). when he had to be put down suddenly in March this year due to health reasons at the age of 18. He probably had another 5 years as a stallion... which is approx 1,000 offspring, so who knows what he might have eventually become.
How's Your Luck?
It's undoubtedly been a torrid last 12 months for Sheik Mohammed, both personally and professionally through his Godolphin operation, but looking all the way back to a few years after his split with Henry Cecil you would have to say that it's been an unremitting struggle for them punctuated with a few bright stars, compared to the perennial success seemingly achieved worldwide by the Coolmore operation.
And you have to wonder with the oil price going through the floor and both Dubai's revenues and the Sheik's personal fortune dramatically falling, whether Godolphin can keep investing in its operation at the levels it has been doing, and we might see even further declines in its success at the very highest levels on the world's racetracks.