"When I decided to take on the stable, I had to reorganize my whole life. For one thing, it was obvious that I was going to have to spend much of the year in Paris, where I had no home. I was also going to face a lot of travel—to Chantilly to see the horses train, to Normandy and Ireland to visit the stud farms."
Since Aly Khan had bequeathed his Paris home to Yasmin, Karim told his lawyer and aide, Andr� Ardoin, that he was in the market for a house. As luck would have it, one of the most extraordinary houses in Paris—and one of the most beautiful—had just fallen into the hands of a bankruptcy commission, Le Syndicat de la Faillite. The house, located at 1, Rue des Ursins on the He de la Cit�, had been rented by an architect-builder who had been convicted of fraud in a nationwide housing scandal. It was for rent ridiculously cheap. When Karim heard that Aristotle Onassis was also interested in the house, he rushed to complete the deal. "I didn't care to find myself bidding against Mr. Onassis." he says.
If Onassis ever sees this five-story medieval mansion, he will not forgive himself. There are too many rooms to count, a fine spiral stone staircase, 17th century sculptured fireplaces, a 12th century cloister with a glorious fountain, elegantly carved woodwork. Renaissance tapestries, a two-level 15th century dining room and a choice of 16th, 17th and 18th century bedrooms. Opening the door to an 18th century boudoir, Karim remarked: "One does not always care to live in the 16th or 17th century."
Nor does one always like to work in an attic, but Karim does. It is here, at the very top of his house, that he has his office, a Tudor-beamed light-blue room with a memorable view of the Seine. From here Karim runs his racing and breeding establishment. Chantilly is only 15 minutes away, and Normandy less than two hours—as the Prince drives. The Irish stud farms are hardly more distant—as the Prince flies. Unlike his grandfather, who left his trainers and farm managers pretty much alone, Karim keeps an attentive watch on both. It is some measure of his active interest that, after much hesitation last year, he parted company with a longtime family employee, the well-known Alec Head, and replaced him with France's best-known trainer, Mathet.
An early riser, Karim usually breakfasts on orange juice, toast and coffee between 6 and 7, reads Ismaili community reports and correspondence, dictates from 10 to 40 letters to a machine, and then turns his attention to horses. At 8 o'clock one morning not long ago Karim set off from Paris on what was to become, over a period of days, a tour of his racing holdings. He drove one of his Maseratis to Chantilly to watch Mathet supervise the training of the 72 horses there. The Prince's chauffeur, Lucien Lemoussu, was at his usual place, in the right front seat, the steering wheel remaining firmly in Karim's hands.
As the silver-gray 3�-liter Italian car whipped by everything in front of it at more than 100 miles an hour, Karim discoursed on horse racing. "Thoroughbreds can be either a sportsman's hobby or a business," he said. "Where a large stable and a lot of money are involved, obviously racing is no longer a hobby." Admitting what many stable proprietors do not care to, Karim said that racing and breeding horses can be a profitable business. "In France we hope to balance prize money with the cost of running the stable." he said. "The sales of yearlings and stud fees should represent profits. Of course, things do not always work out so nicely."
Last year things did not work out nicely at all for the Aga Khan's stable. His horses won only 24 of the 160 races in which they were entered and brought in roughly $140,000. This year the Prince's horses are faring much better. By the middle of July his green-and-red racing silks had won 20 times, placed 10 times and showed 14 times in 77 races—performances that were worth almost $180,000 to Karim.
Another encouraging sign is that 52 foals will be born this year on his Irish and Norman farms, bringing the stable's total up to the 300 mark. "This is important," says Karim, "because if you have a big production, you can afford to sell large numbers of your most promising horses. We want buyers to feel we are selling fine horses, and not keeping all the good ones for ourselves."
At this point Karim turned the wheel over to Lucien, but a moment later the chauffeur suddenly slowed down (to 80 miles an hour) behind a Ferrari. "Let's change places," Karim told Lucien, who quickly stopped the car. The Prince tooted his four-tone horn, blew a blast on a ship's siren and passed the Ferrari as if it were a beetle on its back. "He heard us, but he never saw us," said the chauffeur. By 8:20 Karim was shaking hands with his trainer and saying, "Bonjour, Monsieur Mathet." Mathet replied: "Bonjour, Monseigneur [My Lord]." Few people address Karim quite so respectfully. Generally he is called "Prince," occasionally "Your Highness." The title, incidentally, is not hereditary, as many imagine. Queen Elizabeth II gave it to Karim after the old Aga's death—a traditional gesture by British sovereigns since the first Aga Khan allied himself with Britain against Afghanistan a century ago. Since Karim is descended from a former ruling family of Persia, the Shah of Iran has added a "Royal" to Karim's "Highness."
Karim listened carefully to Mathet's comments as all 72 horses, each wearing the dark-blue blanket of the stable, filed slowly by. For several hours the two men walked across wet, green meadows and watched the horses canter and gallop. It was evident from Karim's manner and tone of voice that he was aware of his own youth and Mathet's vast experience. Toward the end of the morning Karim suggested to Mathet that they meet at Le Bourget airport two days later for a quick trip to Ireland to inspect the stud farms around Dublin. "D'accord" said Mathet, glad for a chance to see horses he would be training later in the year at Chantilly. By midday Karim was back in his attic, working on Ismaili community problems.