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Aly's first winning race was in September 1931, when he won the Southdown Welter Handicap astride a large dark-brown horse named Light O'London in which he owned a three-quarter share. His first win seemed to break the ice, because from then on he went from success to success. At almost the same time he began riding Aly began trading in horses. The first horse he owned was named Sledge, and he bought it with money he saved from his allowance. He later sold Sledge for a fat profit, and he remembers the horse fondly because, he recalled, "the money I made from Sledge formed the foundation on which I built my own stables."
In 1931 Aly was able to register his own racing colors in Britain. It was something of a double accomplishment, because he was able to choose green and red, the colors of the Ismaili flag and the traditional racing colors of all the Aga Khans. His father used the colors everywhere except in England, because when he first arrived in England somebody in the Foreign Office had taken the trouble to register racing colors for him but the combination of red and green was not available. Green and chocolate—a combination to become so famous—was chosen instead. Only later did the green and red colors become available in time to pass to Aly.
The old Aga soon learned to respect—and use—his son's uncanny judgment of horses. In a single day, when he still was in his early 20s, Aly spent $115,000 in buying horses for his father. The old Aga was one of the shrewdest owners of this or any other century. But he was strictly a pedigree-reader. "He knew nothing of conformation," Aly said. "I could have sold him a horse with knock-knees if the bloodlines had been impressive enough." Aly had a nose for a horse. Long before 1946—when his father made him a full partner in his racing interests—Aly had acquired a reputation as one of the canniest horse dealers in Europe. Together he and the Aga were well-nigh unbeatable. "Some people are in this business just for sport," Aly said. "Father and I want a profit as well."
Aly's coups have become famous. When he was only 27 he bought Bois Roussel for Peter Beatty only three months before that horse won the English Derby. In 1948 he persuaded his father to let him make Leon Volterra an offer for My Love. Volterra refused to sell the whole horse, so Aly bought a half share on his father's behalf. My Love won the English Derby at 100 to 9. In 1947 he bought the colt Avenger just a few weeks before the Grand Prix de Paris. It galloped home at 33 to 1. Almost the same thing happened in 1953, when he acquired Dandy Drake only a few days before France's famed Prix Lupin. Dandy Drake, with Crack Jockey Roger Poincelet up, won at good odds.
It is widely, but quite erroneously, believed that the old Aga financed Aly's horse deals. Not only is this not true, but frequently when Aly was hot for a horse and the Aga was doubtful he would fix Aly with a shrewd eye and inquire, "Will you go halves?" "Asking me if I would go halves was his favorite way of testing my enthusiasm for a horse," Aly said.
None of Aly's successes apparently ever impressed the old Aga with Aly's wizardry quite as much as one near miss. It was in 1932, when Windsor Lad was put up for auction as a yearling at Newmarket. Aly had seen the colt and was highly impressed. He was going to the sales to buy some other horses for his father, but before he left he took the catalog up to the Aga's suite at the Ritz in London to try to persuade him to buy Windsor Lad. "Father was being shaved at the time," Aly said, "and he wasn't much interested in hearing about Windsor Lad. He had his hands under the barber's sheet and his chin up in the air, so I opened the catalog and held it in front of him so he could read Windsor Lad's pedigree. He was not a bit impressed. He asked me if I would go halves. I said I didn't have the money to spare. I tried to convince him what a fine colt Windsor Lad was, but he kept saying that his pedigree was no good. Just as I was opening the door to leave he said I could bid �1,200 [about $6,000 in those days] but not a shilling more.
"Well, when I arrived at the sales and Windsor Lad was brought out I started bidding. Bidding was rather brisk for a while, but soon nobody was bidding except me and Marcus Marsh, a well-known trainer. I would make a bid and Marsh would top me. It wasn't long before I had reached my limit, but I was so sure that this was a great colt that I just couldn't stop. I was scared to death, of course, because I didn't know how father would react, and I was fairly certain that he would make me pay all over �1,200 and I was strapped at the time. Finally I gave up and the horse was knocked down to Marsh at 1,300 guineas. After the sale I went around to congratulate him and tell him what a fine colt he had bought. I found him worried sick. 'I agree with you it's a fine colt,' he said, 'but I was bidding for the Maharaja of Rajpipla and he told me not to go a shilling higher than �1,200 and now I don't know what he's going to say.' "
Aly laughed. "Well, I guess the maharaja agreed he got a bargain when Windsor Lad won the English Derby, the St. Leger, the Coronation Cup and the Sandown Eclipse Stakes. And you can be sure father never heard the last of Windsor Lad."
How does Aly explain his amazing knack for picking winners? "It's something you have or you haven't," he said. "I've been brought up among horses and I go to every race meeting I can. I watch the losers as closely as I watch the winners and I look particularly for signs that might indicate a horse will show improvement. You've got to think of breeding, of course. Blood isn't everything, but good blood tells. Blood is important. If I were to advise someone with modest capital who wanted to build up a stable and make money, I would tell them to buy only horses that have good pedigrees. Knowing what a horse should be like from his ancestry tells you what faults to look for, what good points to expect. Sometimes a grand horse can come from unlikely stock, though, so you've got to play your hunches."
Patience is not generally regarded as one of Aly's attributes, but when it comes to horses he has a great deal. There was, for instance, a horse named Nahar. Aly bought Nahar as a promising yearling, but from the time he started racing he seldom won. Nahar began to be called an "unlucky" horse. "And for the first four years he was a very unlucky horse indeed," Aly said. "He was an honest, game horse, but he saved himself until the end of a race, when he'd come forth with the most terrific burst of speed. If that put him in front, Nahar would decide that he had done enough. He would stop."