At 6-15 yesterday morning the Godolphin horses were on the move, Saeed Suroor was in the paddock beside them, Simon Crisford was in the office at the gateway to the yard and Frankie Dettori? Well with seven consecutive rides in the royal blue silks that evening he could be forgiven an extra hour between the sheets.
Forget the great bull’s horns of Meydan’s impossible grandstand set way across the Desert against the rising sun, ignore the skyscrapers which strain the close horizon topped by the “can’t-be-true” 2,717 ft spike that is the Burj al Khalifa. If you want to understand what makes Godolphin tick you need to come to this oasis of green at what is now simply called the Dubai Stable.
For money alone is never enough. For big money always has complacency and corruption as endemic. Few are the teams who can still go to work with the edge they had two decades ago. For Godolphin, the richest racing project that ever was or ever will be, you might have thought that was especially so. Which is why you should have been with me yesterday morning.
Saeed bin Suroor had been up since 4 am. He always is winter and summer. 18 years ago when the Godolphin project was forming he was getting up at that time to work with his horses in the desert and then going in to the city to work as a policeman. “But it is in my blood,” he says, “my family came from Hatta and always had horses. I like to be with them early, to check their legs, to see that everything is right. You have to have discipline.”
Those who in the past have sometimes sniggered at Saeed as some sort of token Dubaian should have a try at his schedule which at one stage last year had him physically saddle horses in England, France, Singapore and America in as many days. Genial he may be, but no one should think he just twiddles his fingers. Especially, if we want to be silly for a moment, especially not at home, where he and the charming Lady Suroor are about to have their 9th offspring.
Simon and Karen ?? Crisford only have two children but his obsession with racing goes right back to father-led trips to Plumpton and to Goodwood where a benevolent Peter O’Sullevan took the twelve year old tyro into the commentary box and tipped him an 8-1 winner. The public know him as the polite, slightly public school, spokesman for Godolphin whose three years working as Newmarket Correspondent for this paper have left him with an understanding of how to handle the media which all those dodgy spin doctors would die for.
Indeed the tale of his actual hiring as a hack says much of the sharpness beneath that apparently establishment skin. Mark Prescott had recommended S.Crisford, his young assistant, for the Racing Post job, so I duly took him to lunch at the Moat House next door. At the end it was clear to me that for all his touching enthusiasm and intelligence, this youth was far too innocent to distil the secrets of racing’s HQ. Perhaps Simon sensed this because as I reached the car he said quietly, “I have a lad in every yard except Clive Brittain’s.” He got the job.
He made a great success of it, most notably in both finding stories and knowing when was the correct time to break them – the best example being the unfortunate demise of his future employer’s Ajdal when early denials were met with the great line “but I’ve seen the body.” Such acumen led to his hiring by Sheikh Mohammed’s racing manager Anthony Stroud and in 1992 he was famously asked out to this very spot for what was billed as “a long weekend.”
As Crisford and Suroor conferred and then drove past the mown grass and the palm trees to mount the viewing area with its white tented style roof to watch some of this year’s European classic horses go through their paces, it was time to understand the journey that they and the rest of us have been on.
For there were no lawns back then. The abiding memory was of a silver sanded encampment set next to the camel track and some way out from the burgeoning hotel strip on the creek with the nearest landmark on the horizon, the then tall but now almost pathetically modest 30 stories (500ft) of the somewhat grandiosely named World Trade Centre. There was a sand track to work horses on and the unused racetrack at Nad Al Sheba on which the young Saeed bin Suroor had walked with the sea shells crunching beneath his feet, was now host to local events and an international jockeys challenge. A cynic could think it did not add up to a lot. But there was of course Sheikh Mohammed.
It had been some 8 years earlier that he had first taken me into the desert and given what had seemed a somewhat theatrical wave of the hand and said “we are going to build something magnificent here.” He explained how his father Sheikh Rashid had this vision of using Dubai and its creek as a hub not just of the Emirates, or the middle east but of the whole world. How in his culture the horses had always been the fighter planes attached to the end of the camel convoys. How racing was in his blood and Dubai would be a world racing centre too
Looking out to where the roundabout stood still unfinished at the aforementioned World Trade Centre and the dusty road stretched off through Desert towards Abu Dhabi, it had all seemed pretty fanciful. Yet there was always something hypnotic about him and by the time we got to 1992 there were horses and stud farms aplenty, Robert Sangster had long since confided a melancholy “I can’t compete” and the no doubt mixed blessing of The Racing Post had been launched with Sheikh Mohammed’s backing on an unwitting public.
As the world now knows the Godolphin project took wing early. At the end of 1993 two stars were added to the roster, Dettori came on as jockey and Sangster accepted a handsome cheque for a filly called Balanchine. By the time she had won both the Oaks at Epsom and the Irish Derby at The Curragh and then a season later the chestnut colt Lammtarra went unbeaten through the Derby, the King George and The Arc, what the Godolphin operation was doing at Al Quoz was not just being deemed as successful, it was even being called “unfair.”
Two Thousand Guineas wins for the talented Mark of Esteem in 1996 and the not so brilliant Island Sands three years later heightened the refrain although neatly ignoring the fact that Mark of Esteem only just beat the lower rated Bijou D’Inde who had spent his winter at Arctic Middleham and that Island Sands freezing, July Course based Guineas was one of the worst classics ever run. But whatever the benefits of Dubai wintering (and if shipping to the sunshine was that essential you can bet your golden dollar that Coolmore would have built their own base by now), these early successes have proved something of a poisoned chalice in that unless the blue silks have already collected a series of big prizes by the end of the June, the air gets deafened by a Jeremiah’s chorus chanting “what’s wrong with Godolphin?.”
Last year was but the latest example. Without a significant win by mid season the usual refrain had to be endured until the tide turned spectacularly to give a best ever score of 148 winners and 78 with two year olds at a 32% strike rate. What’s more the £ 2.75m prize money was only a fraction of the record $20.3m global total which included five Group Ones and an Eclipse Award in America. “People just have to realise,” says Crisford in a rare moment of exasperation, “that the whole point of Godolphin from the very outset, was to showcase Dubai on the international sporting scene.”
But it is slightly selfish fact of racing life that such considerations don’t matter a fig when we are at the end of March and you are invited to watch some possible classic three year olds work. Get into a lather about Godolphin supposedly underachieving or it somehow not being quite “right” to buy other people’s top two year olds, but what we really want to know is how they went. Well two of the four come to spin 6 furlongs round the Tapeta track, Chabal and Long Lashes, were bought (at no complaint from Mr Bolger) last season, but that all seems rather irrelevant as they canter towards the starting point.
Crisford and three friends are in the bucket seats with Saeed Suroor straddling the low wall next two us a white towel placed discreetly beneath him in case something to exciting might happen. To his left Brian Powell and four other senior assistants peer intently out over the flamingo lake in the track centre. Big stable or small, home or away, it is ever thus with three year olds in spring. Unspoken hope hangs almost juicily in the air.
Of course you rarely get a revelation and we certainly did not get one yesterday except to not get too despondent if you watch Passion For The Gold at the gallop – “he’s always like that,” said Crisford after the Grand Criterium de Saint Cloud winner laboured against two stable mates. Chabal, who disappointed in the Middle Park, was quite impressive and might yet make the Guineas, Long Lashes rather less so under Ted Durcan and the most impact was made by the grey filling Wedding March, 4th in the Marcel Boussac and who could be pointed at the French 1,000.
“The truth is that we are some 4 weeks away from a run and they are just coming along nicely,” says Crisford as we go back to the small functional office with the painting of Sheikh Mohammed on the wall. “We don’t know yet. I remember the year of Cape Verdi (1999) when at this time everyone was full of Embassy and yet by May the other filly had come through.”
Saeed is back in the stable, Simon’s phone rings with some query. There are some 150 staff and 250 horses under his jurisdiction and he briefly pauses to explain what Godolphin is and what it is not. “We are just a racing operation,” he says. “Although we are both owned by Sheikh Mohammed we have nothing to do with Darley except that they are something of a ‘feeder’ for us just as are those horses trained by Mark Johnston and John Gosden. We are trying to develop an elite force to fly the flag for Dubai round the world. Over the years we have developed what we do and it is important to analyse yourself every day.”
Chief amongst the changes in the last few years has been the decision to lessen the stress on two year olds by not flying them as yearlings to Dubai. And in a move which has an element of Dubaiasation it was announced last week that 33 year old Bin Suroor assistant Mahmoud Al Zamari will become Godolphin’s second trainer based at Moulton Paddocks with the remarkable camel rider turned jockey Ahmed Ajtebi as stable pilot.
“It was Saeed’s idea and the right time for this to happen,” explains Crisford, “last year he had 200 horses which is too many. It’s a system which will evolve because Godolphin is not about me or about Saeed or any of the rest of us. It is an international project, Sheikh Mohammed’s vision and we are a team that works together.”
They are good words but familiar ones and while Crisford has thrived in his job by conspicuously avoiding personal publicity and private agenda, you can’t help wondering how he and his colleagues handle so mighty an employer. “It is not a problem,” he explains. “Because Sheikh Mohammed is a horseman, he understands that things go wrong. But this is his passion. He may be a very busy man but he will drop by any time he can. And when we have things to discuss, he will have a very real input.”
Most famously in September 2001 when Sheikh Mohammed overruled Frankie Dettori’s plan to make the running on Famous Light so enabling him to brilliantly outgun Galileo in an Irish Champion that went into legend. “Yes, Sheikh Mohammed will tell us sometimes,” Saeed bin Suroor had said before going to the fourth of his daily prayers the previous evening. “But mostly it is just me and Frankie and Simon. We argue all the time, but good arguments to make things better. For we have been together for 16 years. We are like brothers.”
As Crisford took another call, the third brother came through the door. Frankie was relaxed in T-shirt and surfer shorts but while he was relaxed he had a focus about him which knew a lot would happen before the sun came up next morning. He is 40 this December and his Godolphin Duties have made him the world’s most travelled riding ace. This week he has been talking of being in the third stage of his career – after “making it” and “proving it” he is now “enjoying it.” But he was sharp in his reply as to how he and the others kept an edge about them.
“Because,” said Frankie, “everyone else would like to do what we do. This is the best job in the world.” Sitting there yesterday morning, with not just last night’s Meydan excitements but the whole international year stretching out ahead of them, it was hard to disagree.