Prince Khalid Abdulla was amused by the memories. “You need to be lucky,” he said as if this could explain the thirty years of glittering success crowned by Workforce’s Derby last Saturday. “This year for example I have won two classics (with Special Duty) while being second.” The Prince’s smile is a slow one – but he likes it that way.
Courtesy should never be confused with softness, nor shyness with lack of will. For two hours in Paris on Thursday morning he sat and talked of the racing passion first lit when friends took him to Longchamp way back in 1956. Never once did the courtesy or the self effacing shyness slip yet neither did the impression alter that the unique owner-breeder achievements of his international Juddmonte Empire still depend on having him at the heart of it all.
“But I know nothing about racing,” he says to the suggestion that he might have an input into a horse’s programme, “how can I tell a trainer what to do. I have very good people and good managers. I talk to them all the time. It is not a business but it is my only hobby and so we have to run it like a business, not to make money but to make sure we control it.”
As he talks, the words quiet and carefully chosen in still quite accented English you think how far and yet how close he is to the thousands who also have racing as their thing. He is sitting in the silk-lined anteroom at the top of the stairs in his Paris town house on the edge of the elegant Parc Monceau not half a mile from the Bois de Boulogne ready to go to lunch with important visitors fromhis native Saudi Arabia. Yet he will return in time to watch a once raced Oasis Dream colt called Uphold wing home at 3-1 in the second division of the Maiden race at Nottingham. Betting shop punters who blindly back the pink and green will be just as pleased as a prince in Paris- especially those who got the early 7-1.
It was a 20th British win of a year whose current £1.5 million seasonal total could yet eclipse all that HAVE gone before and is a far cry from those first thoroughbred sightings of 1956. “I was only over here,” remembers Prince Khalid, “because my oldest son needed treatment. But I had two Saudi friends and they used to go to the races every day. So instead of learning the French language, I started going with them. At that time of course,” he adds with a slight dip of the head which acknowledges that financial matters are rather better now, “I had not any money. But I promised myself that one day I would have a horse running in my colours at Longchamp.”
That initial dream was put on hold but after completing his history studies in America and Riyadh, the Prince (he is King Abdullah’s cousin and brother-in-law) started out in a business which was eventually to grow into the massive Mawared conglomerate in which he claims now to take a back seat and leave the running to his sons. By 1977 business was looking up and had taken him to London. “I began to watch the races in England,” he says with relish, “and I felt that the promise should happen.”
At this stage the late Humphrey Cottrill and Jeremy Tree should both take a posthumous bow. For it was into the bloodstock advisor’s hands and via him to Tree’s stable that Abdulla delivered himself with a vague wish that he wanted to buy some horses. Faced with this quiet, apparently naive but evidently very wealthy Saudi prince there are many in the racing game who would have greedily taken the short term view and so soured off one of the greatest individual benefactors in racing history. They didn’t. The prince wanted to buy 4 horses. They said it was too many.
“Jeremy said we could do it with two horses,” recalls Prince Khalid, “but I said that if we had at least four we might have some luck. None of them did win that first year but Aliya did win a Group Race later and of the ones we bought in 1978, Abeer won the Queen Mary Stakes. She was not expensive, 25,000 Guineas I think.”
Others in that second year were quite a bit more costly, but whilst the 264,000 gns shelled out for Sandhawk was almost entirely wasted, the $225,000 that Cottrill and Tree paid at Keeneland for a bay colt by In Reality was very much not so. Named Known Fact the colt won the 1979 Middle Park and was victor, albeit on Nureyev’s disqualification, of the 1980 Two Thousand Guineasto become the first of what would eventually be a clean sweep of the Classics in both Britain and France for those green silks with the pink sash and cap.
The very first time this livery had hit the winners’ circle had been with a horse called Charming Native at Windsor on May 14th 1979 and it turns out that the pink sash and cap should have been orange. “Before I started as a owner” said Prince Khalid eyeing the green and orange clad room in Paris on Thursday, “Lord Weinstock came to see me in my office and looked around at the curtains and wallpaper and said, ‘you have your colours here.’ Someone misunderstood the instructions but after Windsor I thought it would be unlucky to change.”
After Known Fact the ambition began to take on another dimension. For whilst other big winners, notably Dancing Brave the greatest of them all, still came from the yearling sales, the idea of forming a breeding operation was taking shape. “When I was at the sales,” said Prince Khalid, “I realised that it would be easier to buy horses and race them but I got the feeling that this was not enough, that it would be more fun to do what people like the Aga Khan and Howard de Walden did and build up your own families.”
So it was that the Juddmonte Empire began. Studs were bought in England, Ireland and America, Known Fact became the sire of Champion miler Warning, Arc winner Rainbow Quest fathered the first Juddmonte Derby winner Quest For Fame in 1990 and Dancing Brave the second when Commander In Chief stormed clear at Epsom in 1993. By that year, having had 9 worldwide Group Ones in 1992, Juddmonte were already on to their second “Annus Mirabilis” with Zafonic a product of their American operation taking the 2,000 Guineas as part of a season that saw top strikes in Britain, France, Ireland and America.
Interviewing Prince Khalid for the Sunday Times before the Derby that year was to note the exactness of the detail gathered by Philip Mitchell, then as now general manager of the European Studs which comprise three in England and two in Ireland. As this year with Bullet Train and Workforce, in 1993 Juddmonte were two handed in the Derby with Commander in Chief being lesser fancied than his stable companion Tenby who actually started favourite. And as this year Khalid Abdulla was not into over elaboration. “I rely on very good professionals,” he said in his London study with a huge canvas of some 16th century Italian battle hanging above his desk, “I just hope we can get some of it right.”
The current total of 156 Group One victories, 125 of them with home-breds is testimony to that hope fulfilled, as is the success of Dansili and Oasis Dream as outstanding young stallions in Europe and Belmont winner Empire Maker in America. But 17 years on from that first conversation, and after another 18 Group Race Annus Mirabilis in 2003, there were a few more clues as to just how much the man who is listed on the racecard as plain “Mr Khalid Abdulla” cares about his operation.
The first is the evidence from those who work for him; from Dr John Chandler and Garret O’Rourke in America, to Rory Mahon in Ireland, and Philip Mitchell and racing manager Teddy Grimthorpe in England. Talk to any of them and they will tell you not of a noisy “hands on” employer but of a quiet man who in the words of Grimthorpe “likes things to be done properly.”
On Thursday, Prince Khalid was happy to explain. “It is still my only hobby,” he said with a degree of self-mocking sadness, “but while I have very good people working for me I like to be involved. We have budgets on everything because you cannot say to managers that you should just go and spend, that’s not good for anyone. When I first said to Lord Weinstock that I was going to have horses I did not expect to make money and we are not really doing that but it is all within reason. At one stage I felt the operation was getting too big. It is important for me to be able to deal with one manager.”
To that end Teddy Grimthorpe (who took over from Grant Pritchard Gordon in 1998) briefs himself from the trainers of the 250 horses spread almost evenly between England and France and with some 40 in America and reports every evening to his patron wherever he may be in the world. By the time he does so, the miracles of satellites mean that he will be talking about a race that has already been watched.
The search, of course is for excellence not mere indulgence, and the key to Khalid Abdulla’s interest is in his fascination as to how his equine families are working out. “I have my stud book with me all the time,” he says, “with breeding I think the dam is the key more than the stallion. With a bad dam, nothing is going to work out. We have to sell to keep the standard. With unraced mares, (such as Workforce’s dam Soviet Moon) it is a judgement. I cannot take any credit for Workforce but at least we did not sell the dam.”
What he can take credit for is the way he can get others to pursue excellence on his behalf. Not just on mating lists which he finally approves, on allocation of horses to trainers which is entirely his own, but in quality control from the very beginning. Within minutes of an enquiry to Philip Mitchell about Workforce’s development a series of documents had come across over e-mail detailing everything from the moment of birth, 9.44pm at the Side Hill Stud on 14th March 2007, to his emergence “as a genuine Derby contender.”
If you must know the only query on the first night was that the new born foal did not suck on its mother’s milk until 3.20 am but by the time he got to Ireland in November that year his birth weight of 62 kilos had grown to a hefty 356kg and Philip Mitchell’s otherwise complimentary comment contains the proviso “could get too big.”
A year later, when what was to be named Workforce had already grown to 16 hands and 525 kgs , that caveat must have still seemed a danger and it says much for the team’s judgement and facilities that he could be kept back to take his time and early exercise with Joe Mahon at Ferrans Stud in Ireland and did not actually arrive at Michael Stoute’s until June 6th 2009. That Workforce as able to run and win brilliantly at Goodwood on September 23rd that year says as much for his early preparation as it does for his own talent and that of his trainer.
But that is only one story of a pupil in the scholarship stream. Over the next week Khalid Abdulla has a current 18 strong roster of star home breds coming up for highly prized and highly public examinations. Starting with Dansili and Banks Hill’s half sister De Luxe taking on the Aga Khan stars Sarafina and Rosanara in Sunday’s Prix Diane, Ascot week beckons major challenges at every turn.
Whatever happens to the brilliant but exasperating Zacinto in the Queen Anne on Tuesday, more will be expected of Twice Over and Byword joint favourites for the Prince of Wales on Wednesday and Showcasing high in the lists for the Golden Jubilee at the end of the week and even more from Manifest hot favourite for the Ascot Gold Cup just about the only race that an Abdulla horse has never won.
This is about as exciting as flat racing gets and your first impression of the impassive features on the rather slight but immaculately dressed figure at the centre of the Juddmonte team might make you think he was not experiencing it. “But I do enjoy it,” insisted Khalid Abdulla as we closed on Thursday, “I like being in England, like visiting my horses and going to the races. But I don’t like showing myself and talking to the press. I don’t think it suits me really.”
Courteous as ever he takes me to the door and an aide hands an umbrella for the soft drizzle outside. The nearby Parc Monceau is exactly a kilometre in diameter circumference and on Thursday was peopled by sweaty runners on their lunch hour jog. The place is famous as the site, on October 22nd 1797, of the first parachute jump when a man called Andre Jacques Garnerin floated unsteadily to earth after cutting himself free from a hot air balloon at 3,000 feet.
British and French, and indeed all racing fans, might be excused for thinking that fifty four years ago something equally wondrous dropped down from above.