On June 20, 1977, a six-year-old mare named Hatta won a race in Brighton. Not a race that anyone would call historic in any sense of the word. But to one man it was exactly that—the owner of the horse was a young man named HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and this was his first thoroughbred winner. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And horse racing has never been the same again.
HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, gave an exclusive interview to Gallop Magazine on how Sheikh Mohammed brought racing back to its roots and made it grow in a way it never had before.
Today Sheikh Mohammed is the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai. He is the creator of Godolphin – the world’s largest horse racing operation – and the Dubai World Cup. His wife, HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, gave an exclusive interview to Gallop Magazine on how Sheikh Mohammed brought racing back to its roots and made it grow in a way it never had before.
If Great Britain had a reputation for being conservative in the 1970-80s, horse racing in the country was widely seen as the very heart of that conservatism. Suddenly a man from Dubai – a place that few had even heard of – entered the scene: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – bringing in new ideas, new money, and a new approach to the sport. A beginning of what is often described as “a seismic shift” in the racing world.
Today, racing is a global sport where it is natural to see the same jockeys in big races in the UK, Hong Kong, and Dubai. Trainers and breeders keep track of what goes on in both Kentucky and Normandy. Few people realize that 30 years ago this was not the case at all and racing was a rather internal affair. Sheikh Mohammed wanted to change this. He had a vision to make racing big again. He wanted to make it global. And he wanted to make Dubai an international racing centre.
“The establishment saw owners as people who were just supposed to drink champagne in their box and show up in the paddock five minutes before a race,” says Princess Haya when we meet her in Dubai. “They paid the bills, and everybody was happy.”
“When Sheikh Mohammed turned up he changed the role of the owner completely. He wanted to see the feed rooms, he wanted to know what the horses ate, he wanted to know what the vets gave them. And he did not always agree with what horses the bloodstock agents thought he should buy.”
“Many, many trainers were surprised by his knowledge, but he genuinely wanted to meet them as colleagues and partners, and they weren’t used to it. Many did not understand his background. He grew up here in Dubai and was born and bred with horses. When he was young, they used horses for transport and raced on the beaches. Their survival in the early days depended on recognizing speed in an animal. They would be out in the desert hunting for food, and when they saw gazelles, they had to go for the slowest one. Recognizing speed in horses, in camels, in gazelles was a large part of their upbringing.”
“He is a true horseman. He was one of the last people who was taught how to train war horses; he can still make an Arabian horse lie down so that you can shoot from behind it”
A new era in racing
The entry of Sheikh Mohammed in Newmarket meant a new era in racing. Horses were sold at higher prices, making it possible for breeders to invest. Jobs were created, and investments in media such as the Racing Post and Channel Four television made it possible for racing to have a platform for communication. New technologies and ideas were encouraged, and money was invested in research. Each player in the field realized that to keep up they had to follow suit. Following familiar paths was no longer enough.
“It is important to understand that it was always about the big picture. It was always much more important to make racing as such bigger, than to just be a bigger player in the sport.”
Princess Haya is herself a respected horsewoman and was a world class show jumper. In 2000, she carried the flag for her native Jordan at the Olympics in Sydney. She was the President of the International Equestrian Federation for eight years.
It was a horse that brought the couple together. Having occasionally met in the Royal circles, she called up Sheikh Mohammed before the 2000 Olympics to get his advice on feed for a horse she was riding.
“He is a true horseman. He was one of the last people who was taught how to train war horses; he can still make an Arabian horse lie down so that you can shoot from behind it. He does a lot of similar things to what Monty Roberts does like ‘Join Up’. He loves that! That’s really where he came from. And don’t forget that he is a great endurance rider. In 2010 in Kentucky he was on the team that took the endurance gold medal, riding 160km!”
Sheikh Mohammed himself tells a story about his own first horse race. As a boy, he found a mare in the family stable that nobody wanted – Sawdah Um Halag. She had a bowed tendon and had the tip of her ear split, but he wanted to try her in the annual races on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai.
The first person he went to see was his mother, to get advice on what herbs to use on the leg. Instead, she looked the angles of feet and joints of the mare and explained that the problem in a horse often is not where the symptoms are. She taught him how to make the right potions and how to trim the hooves. For three months he trained the mare, swam with her in the sea and rode her on the beaches. He let her run loose and come back on his command. When the race day came, he rode the mare that nobody had noticed and they both fought until the very end, beaten by just a length. That night he slept on the beach, curled up by Um Halag’s stomach.
“I thanked her for all she had done for me, over and over again. I spoke to her of my gratitude for sharing this experience with me, for the race itself was more than just a sporting event. And this was how the Dubai World Cup began, a race that started with a flat blade across the beach sand of Dubai has grown into a world-class event that crowns the place of Dubai in the racing world.”
Many people see horse racing as a sport with British origins.
The truth is that long before the Romans introduced racing on the British islands, it was a major pastime in the Arab world. A place where the speed and endurance of horses was a matter of life and death. One example is the story of the two tribes Bani Abs and Dhibyan. Each tribe had a mare that was renowned for her speed – Dahes and Al Ghabra.
One day the two tribes arranged for a race between the mares to finally settle the discussion. However, the leader of the Dhibyan was so worried that his mare Al Ghabra would be beaten that he arranged for two of his men to hide by the track and jump up and spook Dahes when she passed them. Dahes nearly threw off her rider and Al Ghabra won the race, but word got out about the foul play and this led to ‘The War of Dahes and Al Ghabra’, which lasted for 40 years!
Since the days of the crusades, soldiers in Europe saw and learned to fear, respect, and admire the speed of the Arabian horse. In the battle of Waterloo, both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington rode Arabians.
Many horses from the Middle East were brought to Europe where they soon made a major impact on local breeding. Three of those horses received a special place in history as the stallions that founded the Thoroughbred and that every horse of that breed can trace back to: the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian, and the Byerley Turk.
“Some people think that Sheikh Mohammed’s investment in racing was a way to gain acceptance in the social circles in the UK,” Princess Haya continues. “But it was really the other way around. He wanted to make the sport great. And bring it back home.”
Princess Haya explains that sport has always been important to Sheikh Mohammed. He sees it as a way both to build national pride, and to make young people work physically.
“They wanted people to get involved in sport and an Arab-rooted sport that they could relate to. With the introduction of oil, there was a very quick change in lifestyle. People who were very poor and had spent their life moving around, were introduced to cars and fast food. They wanted to create a sporting environment. That is why it was so important to have an Arab trainer, such as Saeed, in the beginning. To show that it could be done. It motivated young people here. The jockeys wearing the blue silks of Godolphin became like a national team.”
“With racing, he found a sport that has been our own for thousands of years and which was still important in the West. Racing was an integral part of making Dubai known all over the world and to become the finance and tourist center that it is today.”
“They had no idea where it was”
Sheikh Mohammed met the young trainer Saeed Bin Suroor in the early 1990’s at a local racetrack, and asked him to train thoroughbreds for him in Dubai Saeed had previously trained horses for local racing but the concept of thoroughbreds in the desert was totally new.
“He had a vision,” Saeed says. “He wanted to get horses from Europe to Dubai, train them here, and then win races in the world and that way get people to learn about Dubai.”
After a short while, Saeed moved to England and took care of Sheikh Mohammed’s horses there. The Arab owner and his Arab trainer were smirked upon by many when no one was looking. But some people, like John Gosden and Vincent O’Brien, recognized the horsemanship, passion, and knowledge and helped open doors for the new team.
“In 1994 I went to Santa Anita with Red Bishop, and we won a Group 1. People asked where we came from, and I said Dubai, in the UAE. They had no idea where it was. They thought it was Saudi Arabia. Some remembered the war in 1990 and thought we were from Kuwait. Some of the English understood, but the others had no clue.”
After showing the UAE flag to people who had never heard about the country or Dubai, it was time for the next step: bringing the world’s best horses to Dubai. The concept of the Dubai World Cup was created, and in 1996, the first edition of what was the world’s richest horse race was run at the new track in Dubai: Nad Al Sheba.”
“We were lucky,” Saeed laughs. “Cigar, who was the American racing superstar at the time, entered the race and won. Suddenly Dubai was becoming known in the racing world.”
“The Dubai World Cup was and is unique. For the first time, racing people from all over the world were invited to meet and see who was the best – all financed by a third party.
For the first time, racing people from all over the world had a place to meet and network. At the same time, Emirates Airlines was created and inch by inch Dubai grew into what it is today.”
“People see Dubai with all the glitzy malls and tall buildings,” Princess Haya says. “They talk about how much we spend on the Dubai World Cup. They rarely speak about how much we get back from it. Business investments and tourism have made the UAE become the 2nd biggest giver of humanitarian aid in the world according to the OECD. Or how we have been able to grow crops in the desert.”
Princess Haya tells of how Sheikh Mohammed once planted a small tree in the desert. After some years he saw how migrating birds used it as a resting place. And eventually, as the tree grew, other birds built nests in it and other plants grew in the shade.
“This is precisely his vision with Dubai,” she says.
Parallel with the creation of the Dubai World Cup, Sheikh Mohammed set up his racing operation, Godolphin.
“Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers were very successful owners in their own rights during the 1980s,” says Hugh Anderson, managing director of Godolphin in UK and UAE.
“When Sheikh Mohammed created Godolphin in 1993 it was a seismic change in the industry. This was a brand new type of owner/trainer operation where things were done in new ways on so many levels, not least of which was the movement of the racehorses to Dubai each winter.”
The economic impact of a new financially strong player is obvious. But Godolphin meant much more than money, Anderson says, not least in Newmarket – the epicenter of horse racing in Europe.
“Racing was an integral part of making Dubai known all over the world and to become the finance and tourist center that it is today”
“It was an entirely new way of doing things that was in many ways a challenge to the traditional and conservative racing industry. A man from a relatively new country, who was himself an expert rider and a horseman, came right in and set up an operation that was unconventional in many ways but, crucially, was immediately very successful.”
Around the same time, Dubai started to expand into the force you now see today. In a way, Godolphin and Dubai were reflections of each other. Growing rapidly and doing things in new ways and on a scale rarely seen.
“Godolphin is about innovation, challenging the norm and building an operation that reflects the spirit of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed’s pioneering approach. Away from the racetrack, we have the Godolphin Flying Start – a first class program that aims to train and produce the future international leaders of the industry. In the UAE, we have just set up a one-year program called Masar Godolphin for Emiratis that aims to foster the young talent and love of the horse that is so much a part of Emirati life. Godolphin also leads the sporting world in its international support for the people who work in the industry, in the form of the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards.”
“Godolphin is a wonderful organization to work for – always exciting, always changing and we are all immensely grateful to His Highness for his loyalty and commitment to his team.”
Today, Godolphin has operations in six countries on four continents and some 1,500 employees all over the world. The scale is as impressive as the results. Since 1992, Godolphin horses have won more than 4,000 races, including more than 1,000 Stakes races and 240 Group 1s.
But at the end of the day, it’s the horses that count. In his opening speech before the 2016 Dubai World Cup, Sheikh Mohammed expressed it this way:
“My very earliest memory was galloping in the desert, seated in the saddle in front of my late father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. I remember the rhythm of Saglawi, the white stallion my father loved so much, and I remember how the sky and the sand rolled with the stallion’s long strides across the dunes. But most of all, I remember my father’s arm around my waist, and a feeling of utter joy and peace in my soul.”
“The horses are central to him, even if he now has less time for them,” Princess Haya says.
“But whenever there are tough decisions to be made or problems to consider, I know where to find him. In the stables – alone with his horses.”