SI Vault
Paul Evan Ress
August 10, 1964
A rare portrait of an intent young ruler who rejects the temptations of an idle life in order to carry on his dynasty's sporting tradition. He runs a huge racing stable, is building a vast Mediterranean resort and skis with Olympic skill
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August 10, 1964

Prince Karim Aga Khan

A rare portrait of an intent young ruler who rejects the temptations of an idle life in order to carry on his dynasty's sporting tradition. He runs a huge racing stable, is building a vast Mediterranean resort and skis with Olympic skill

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A tall, good-looking young man was peering through binoculars as the horses rounded the bend at Longchamp. Running neck and neck were the Aga Khan's Jour et Nuit III and Baron Guy de Rothschild's Corah. As they passed the finish line it looked from the young man's angle as if Corah had won, and he exclaimed regretfully: "I lost!" Without waiting to hear the loudspeaker announce his defeat, he moved quickly from his box toward the nearest exit. On the way an older man caught up with him and said, "Prince, you have won!" Abruptly the Prince changed direction and made for the paddock. A few minutes later photographers were taking pictures of Jour et Nuit III; France's most famous jockey, Yves Saint-Martin; France's most famous trainer, Francois Mathet; and the pleased employer of them all, Prince Karim Aga Khan. Normally the picture-shy Prince has no smiles for photographers. But this fine day at the Paris racetrack Karim was all smiles—and $10,000 richer.

Seven years ago Prince Karim was a soccer-playing student at Harvard who never rode a horse and was bored when his father, Prince Aly Khan, took him to a racecourse. Today, at 27, he is best known as the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But he is also several other things: the owner and active head of one of the biggest racing stables in the world, with 280 horses scattered over nine stud farms in France and Ireland; the backer and builder of a huge holiday resort area in Sardinia, one of the most ambitious enterprises of its sort in the world; and an Olympic skier capable of beating half the finest downhill and slalom runners in the Alps.

Had it not been for a passage in the will of his fabulous grandfather, Aga Khan III, Karim would very likely be just another candidate for a Ph.D. at the Harvard Graduate School today. The decisive sentence read: "In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years...including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community that I should be succeeded by a young man who...brings a new outlook on life to his office." With that—passing over his charming, horse-loving son, Aly—the 79-year-old Aga chose his 20-year-old grandson, Karim, as his successor.

"Overnight," says Karim, "my whole life changed completely. I woke up with serious responsibilities toward millions of other human beings. I knew I would have to abandon my hopes of studying for a doctorate in history." Overnight, too, the Prince, whose allowance at Harvard was so small that he could not buy a car or afford even a few ski weekends in Vermont, became an immensely wealthy international figure.

Endowed with youth, a handsome countenance, riches and an athlete's frame—not to mention sports cars, a yacht, a private plane, an Alpine chalet, a Riviera chateau, a Paris mansion and all those racehorses—Karim could have been expected to become a playboy's playboy. As he himself admits, his public image is that of a gallivanting jet-setter who wants his horses, cars and women to be fast and who can afford the sleekest of all three because every year his Ismaili subjects put him on a scale and bestow upon him the equivalent of his weight in diamonds or platinum.

As in all legends, there is an iota of truth here. He owns fast cars and hopes he owns fast horses. "I do not like nightclubs or night life generally," he says. "I am not a social butterfly or salon lion." Since he accepts invitations to almost no balls, galas or soirees, Karim's name is conspicuously absent from the gossip columns and society pages of the European press. And he is anything but a rake. For the past five years his name has been seriously linked with that of only one woman, an exquisite, publicity-avoiding blonde named Annouchka von Mehks. But K, as intimate friends call him. refuses adamantly to say a word about her. "Public figures have a right to a private life," he insists. His smile turns into a frown and his soft-spoken voice becomes sharp when a photographer seeks to catch the two of them on film. "I see no reason why I should help to sell newspapers," he says. Nor does he get weighed every year. In his 72 years as the Aga Khan, Karim's grandfather was given his weight in gold and gems only four times. "The ceremonies are held every 10 years, at most," explains Karim, "and I have been Imam for only seven years."

Karim is actually closer to being an egghead than a playboy. His first choice of college was significant: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1953 he applied for admission and was accepted. But his grandfather vetoed this and decreed that the Prince must go to Harvard. Karim never lost his interest in science, but his reading today indicates a wide range of thought, from classical novels to modern philosophers, from Balzac to Sartre. He never reads to escape. He considers this wasting time, and he allows himself no time to waste.

Karim's serious view of life is typified in his approach to horse racing. When the Aga Khan died in 1957, his huge racing establishment did not, as one might suppose, become the exclusive property of his son Aly. The Shia Muslim law of inheritance divided the stud farms and the horses among several heirs. Aly did have the privilege of buying back stock that had been willed to other members of the family, but in the end he had to sell about 100 horses of the 300-horse stable. Stud managers warned him: "You will have no more winners for several years." The normal turnover of 50 to 56 yearlings fell in a year to 13. "But my father knew what he was doing," says Karim. "I still think that nobody knew horses better than he did."

By the time of Aly Khan's death in an automobile accident in 1960 the $3 million stable was beginning to flourish. But now the inheritance law put Karim in the position of having to acquire from his younger brother Amyn and his half-sister Yasmin, Rita Hayworth's daughter, their major interest (60%) in the stable. When he had finished doing so, the stable was down to 110 horses.

"Worse yet," says Karim, "I knew nothing about horse racing or breeding. I asked myself seriously whether I could or should attempt to run the establishment. I also was not sure I would have the time to spend on the stable, since I was already working six to 10 hours a day on Ismaili community affairs. And I certainly did not wish to operate a third-rate stable after the glory it had known under my grandfather and father.

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