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.