As the runners gathered for the Champion Hurdle last week not a soul would have taken a second glance at the young middle eastern gentleman in a smart blue suit standing by the final flight. If they had been involved in flat racing they should have done. For this was Sheikh Fahad bin Abdullah bin Khalifa al Thani of Qatar whom a week later would be revealed as the man behind the boldest sponsorship their game has ever seen.
If anyone at Cheltenham had mentioned the name Qipco, they would have thought it was some horse they had missed in the County Hurdle. After last week’s announcement that this private investment company run by 21 year old Sheikh Fahad and his two older brothers has stepped in to be title sponsor of what will be called the Qipco British Champion Series, flat racing’s leaders should be muttering its name in their prayers every bedtime and queuing up to thank the much maligned Prince Andrew who played a crucial role.
With one Qatari-boosted bound the series has burst free from the kicking it would have got from the sceptics if it had launched into the new flat season as a huge and costly fresh idea but with no sponsor to sustain it. Now those racing leaders can purr their way to the Qipco Guineas Festival, the Qipco Sussex Stakes and the whole hoopla of the controversial new Qipco Champions Day at Ascot in October. You can bet they were pleased that the sun was shining at Cheltenham.
Such weighty considerations did not seem to be bothering Sheikh Fahad as the runners drilled down to the final flight in the Champion. He was just a close up observer of one of the moments of the season – Ruby Walsh and Hurricane Fly launching themselves past Jason Maguire and Peddlers Cross at the hurdle and then gritting it out all the way to the line. “That,” said Sheikh Fahad afterwards, his eyes wide in wonder “was just amazing.”
At time like this there is an unfeigned innocence about him that makes you worry about the sharks that feed of the rich and tender enthusiasms of the new convert. But after spending the rest of the day with him two strong forces emerge that should strengthen the shark netting. The first, as was to emerge in a very direct conversation later on, was his own clear and indeed calculating intelligence. The second was the presence of David Redvers by his side.
Just 14 months ago Redvers was bracing himself for tough times ahead. 15 years since he had converted the family farm 9 miles north of Gloucester into The Tweenhills Stud, he had built up a considerable reputation as a stud manager and bloodstock agent and as a young man who wanted to get things done. He had been one of the driving forces behind the Racing Post Bonus Scheme but along with many others he believed that British flat racing needed fresh support and thinking for it, and operations like his, to survive the recession and the continuing dip in public interest in his side of the game.. Then he got the call.
It was to ask whether he would meet with what turned out to be Sheikh Fahad. David has an almost casual memory of being asked to go and meet a potential client at the Lanesborough Hotel but the young Qatari is more exact. “I had done my research and had a short list but David had been especially recommended,” he said after his helicopter had whisked us from Cheltenham across the Severn plane to be sitting in the elegant drawing room of David’s father the portrait painter John Redvers at Tweenhills. The journey had taken just seven minutes and it did not take much longer for the future owner to make up his mind last February.
“I had heard that he was a shrewd judge of horse,” explained Sheikh Fahad, “and that he did not spend fortunes. I liked him and the rest has to be up to intuition. I told him I had an interest in buying horses on the flat. We set out a small budget and I told him he had total control and if we progressed we might get more involved later. By half way through the season we were really flying so we increased the horses we had.”
It is all said so simply that it almost seems bad manners to push for more details at quite how or why we have got from last Spring to this one in such momentous fashion. From no involvement last February Sheikh Fahad now has 40 horses in training spread across 14 trainers in England, France and Ireland under his personal banner of Pearl Bloodstock. Meanwhile, aligning with their more commercial Qipco operation, he and his brothers have formed Qatar Bloodstock which has already purchased the 2,000 Guineas winner Makfi as a stallion, the Prix de L’Abbaye winner Total Gallery as a racehorse and stallion prospect, and an enviable 25 strong band of brood mares as an investment in the thoroughbred industry. And all that’s before they combined to back the Qipco British Champion Series.
“There were horses back on the farm outside Doha but they were mostly Arabs,” he adds in a somewhat modest reference to Umm Qarn Stables which represents his father Sheikh Abdullah the brother of the present Emir Sheikh Hamad, and which back in the 90’s had the Ascot and Goodwood winner Midnight Legend with Luca Cumani who then became a crack hurdler with David Nicholson before becoming the sire of such good jumpers as last week’s Gold Cup fifth Midday Chase. “I did not really care for the Arabs and was much more attracted to the Thoroughbred when I got to following racing on TV during my five years of study in London,” continued Sheikh Fahad. “I did my A Levels at the David Game College and then took a three year BBA in Business Administration on the London Campus of the Geneva based Europa University. When I came back to London after a spell in Qatar I thought it would be nice to take an interest.”
That gets us to the starting point but what follows owes an enormous amount to a couple of kindly early aces from the good luck stable and to an inspired but pragmatic approach by David Redvers. “My feeling,” says David measuring his words very carefully, “is that for anything to be a success it has to have legs and to last. And I believe the way to get anew man completely hooked is to give him a fantastically broad experience with a whole load of different characters whom you can trust implicitly.”
“So when we came to Newmarket I introduced him to Mark Prescott because I knew he would be able to look after him and inspire him with all the history of Newmarket. Better still we went to the Breeze Up Sales at the Craven Meeting and had a stroke of luck. We bought a nice Gone West colt but the under-bidder kept coming back and I explained to Sheikh Fahad that the horse could step on a stone next morning and so by the end of the week we sold him and almost doubled our money.”
The story gets better. “In June,” adds Redvers, “we flew over to Ireland to see a nice horse of Ger Lyons called Wade Giles which we bought for E200,000 and after he had won for us and been second in the Diamond Stakes we sold him for a million to Hong Kong.” By now other horses were winning too, and at their promised half season review Sheikh Fahad decided to commit to the 40 horse strong string that he has today. But at that stage not only was Sheikh Fahad getting the bug but his brothers Sheikh Suhaim and Sheikh Hamad were wondering if this couldn’t work as business as well as sport. For Redvers, hard lessons learned after years of working in the thoroughbred market, this was the opportunity he had been waiting for.
“The chance to buy a real blue chip stallion like Makfi rarely comes up,” he explains, “because they are either already owned or, like Teofilio, they end making four times the money. I had been to see the horse off my own bat but Sheikh Fahad was originally quite lukewarm until he and his brothers saw him win the Jacques Le Marois and they then understood my arguments about the commercial opportunity and they formed Qatar Bloodstock as part of Qipco with a strictly business brief.”
If you are reeling from all this, you might not be alone, but we still need to see how the Qipco Champion Series came about and to register that none of it has anything to do with the Qatar sponsorship of the Arc de Triomphe. “That is done to promote Qatar,” says Prince Fahad firmly enough to make you wonder if he can only be 21 years old, “for us this is business. With the 2022 World Cup and a lot of other things we think there will be a lot of people wanting to do business in Qatar and we are diverse and we think we can help.”
The Champion Series help they have pledged British racing for the next two years came out of a debate Redvers heard at Newmarket between Jim McGrath and Simon Bazalgette in January. “I have great respect for Jim McGrath,” says David, “but I felt he was wrong to be so wholly negative. He and his cohorts did not seem to buy into the need for any change at all at this level and, without any sponsor in the wings, the whole thing looked likely to crash and we would be worse off than ever. Knowing what Qipco was about I thought that this was a great opportunity.”
Ever the man of action, don’t forget Redvers’ most public gig to date has been his uninvited storming of the floor of the House of Commons to protest about the Hunting Bill, he enthused the Qatari brothers, took them to lunch at Buckingham Palace with Prince Andrew and the Queen’s racing manager John Warren, hired former Goodwood supremo Rod Fabricious to negotiate the details and the deal was actually signed by Sheikh Fahad in London after he had helicoptered back on Champion Hurdle Day.
“Buckingham Palace was very important,” says Redvers, “it showed them that they were being taken very seriously. Prince Andrews was excellent, very charming and got on very well with them. I would like to go on record as saying that he was extremely important to the whole process. But I also believe that for them the sponsorship makes sense. Qipco is going to get unbelievable promotion.”
The point is not lost on the graduate of Geneva Business School. “This is not a sponsorship for one race but for all season,” he says, “and I have always thought we should have something like the Breeders Cup which is what the Champions Day will be. I think British Racing is the best in the world and I think this will help it to remain so. I am not doing this to compete with Sheikh Mohammed or Prince Khalid I am doing it for myself. With the horses we want success and would like to keep up the strike rate but I am planning for five years ahead.”
In such words are racing empires born but in view of last year’s record of 13 winners from just 48 runners and actually making a profit, keeping the strike rate might be a touch optimistic as he faces the inevitable setbacks that always bedevil that crucial second season. But here is a bright young man who has already chosen well and wants to use his wealth wisely. If he comes to Cheltenham next year you can be sure Sheikh Fahad will not be unknown. He is unlikely to be unappreciated either.