In April, Mahmood Al Zarooni, trainer for one of the most prestigious horse racing stables in the world, Godolphin, was found guilty of doping offences and banned from the sport for eight years.
Al Zarooni argued, plausibly, that the rules on steroid use in horses that were not in competition differs in Britain compared to the US, Australia and, Al Zarooni’s home country, the UAE and therefore his actions, which he apologised for, were the result of a mix up and not an attempt to cheat.
No blame whatsoever was levelled at the Godolphin Stables, or its owners the the Maktoum family of Dubai, but the events did however, highlight the region’s strong connections with horse racing around the world.
Godolphin, comes from the Godolphin Arabian, one of three stallions who founded the global bloodstock of thoroughbreds. (The other two being the Darley Arabian and the Bryerley Turk.)
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is the driving force behind Godolphin Racing and the Darley Stud. In the 36 years he has been involved in the ‘Sport of Kings’, Sheikh Mohammed has built the largest horse racing empire ever seen. Covering 20,000 acres of real estate all over the world, it owns thousands of horses and employs thousands of people.
Sheikh Mohammed is also responsible for establishing the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup where a total of $27.25m is handed over in prize money, with $10m going to the first prize winner of the world famous race, which takes place at the Meydan racecourse, a facility behind which Sheikh Mohammed was also the driving force.
Indeed, Meydan, with its mile-long grandstand that holds 60,000 spectators, nine-hole golf course, five star hotel, restaurants and museum, serves as a reminder to the world of horse racing, if it needed reminding, of the important place the region occupies at the very heart of the industry.
Like many sports, horse racing can be a lucrative business. A good indicator of its financial health is the level of stud fees being commanded, being, as they are, a financial buttress for the industry.
The $10m prize money which goes to the winner of the Dubai World Cup is relatively small change. The really big money in horse racing is, specifically, in breeding. A winning race horse’s career is in two parts. First it competes. And, if it becomes one of the very few which gain notable success, it will spend its retirement as a stud. The value of this industry is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
Take the recent example of Frankel. Last year this bay, fours years old at the time, retired with a record of 14 wins from 14 races in three seasons, earning him the reputation as the greatest horse ever to race and his owner, Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, around $4.5m in prize money.
The world’s leading breeders are now lining up to dip into Frankel’s potent gene pool. He will be expected to ‘cover’ approximately 200 mares a season at a fee of up to $230,000 a time. If his offspring continue to race well this can go on for up to 20 years. The $4.5m Prince Khalid earned in prize money will be small changed compared to the $250m he could earn by Frankel siring generations of champions.
On the face of it there is little reason to suspect Frankel will not do his owner proud in this regard. His ancestors have been named leading sires for 19 out of the last 20 years. Frankel’s own father is Galileo, who in 2011 sired 214 foals worth an estimated $190,000 each. Last year, Sheikh Fahad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar, bought a colt sired by Galileo for a cool $4m.
However, of the 218 horses Frankel’s father, Galileo, sired and who have gone on to race, only 59 have made back their stud fees, with 20 winning nothing at all.
So although horse racing can be lucrative for the lucky few, it is also a very expensive business for the majority. Even with a stud like Frankel siring your hopes of future success there are no cast iron guarantees.
Britain has for centuries been at the centre of the horseracing world, offering unrivalled prestige for its owners. However, the recent recession has meant that power, at least in terms of finance, is shifting, like everything else, in an easterly direction.
The embattled Sheikh Mohammed has expanded his Darley breeding operation to Japan, seen as a lucrative and emerging market for the industry. He has eight farms for breeding there and two years ago became the first foreign owner to be granted a license to race there.
Browsing a list of the world’s top owners it immediately becomes clear just how many come from the Middle East region. Keeping it in the family is Sheikh Al Maktoum’s wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, who has owned the winners of such high-profile races as the Epsom Derby in England and the Breeders’ Cup in the US.
Then there is Dr Mohammad Al Nujaifi, who has been named by the International Federation of Arabian Horse Racing as the leading breeder by results of Arabian horses for the third year running. His horses, trained on a farm just north of Mosul in Iraq, have competed and won in major races in Europe and all over the Middle East.
However, for the wealthy and the royalty of the Middle East, the drive for profit is not why they own racehorses. There is a prestige attached to this ancient sport that few others can match. The Arabs would argue that their love of horses and horse racing, has been part of their tradition and heritage for so many centuries it is in their DNA. Whether in the winners’ enclosure at Ascot or Meydan, it is the winning that counts.