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CALL IT THE SPORT OF SHEIKHS
Clive Gammon
December 01, 1986
With Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai buying up the U.S.'s finest thoroughbreds, the sport of kings has taken on a Middle Eastern flavor
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December 01, 1986

Call It The Sport Of Sheikhs

With Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai buying up the U.S.'s finest thoroughbreds, the sport of kings has taken on a Middle Eastern flavor

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" 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.

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.

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