We didn’t know who he was, but he did. That, in a perfectly polite manner was the first impression which Sheikh Mohammed gave at Epsom that afternoon. In view of the circumstance he deserves plenty of credit. For it was Derby Day 1982, thirty years ago next month. He was about to give us an interview on TV and I was showing him my new pen.
He had agreed to step on to our strange little platform above the winners circle because the Lingfield Derby Trial winner Jalmood was to be his first runner in the big race. It was a full five years since Jalmood’s trainer John Dunlop had saddled the filly Hatta to become Sheikh Mohammed’s debut win at Brighton in June 1977 and most of us had not yet realised quite what racing players he and his two brothers had become. On enquiry it transpired they already had three studs and over 100 horses in training. The fit-looking, trimly bearded 35 year old leaning against the platform opposite was going to tell us why.
Showing him the pen within seconds of introduction must have seemed something of a trap. For it was one of those cheeky numbers on whose side is the image of a beautiful girl clad in a dress which can be removed by a twist of the cap. Well, Lester Piggott had thought it quite funny. The injury to the Henry Cecil trained favourite Simply Great meant that he was due to add a few, very few actually, well-chosen words in the commentary box. But Lester had been doing Epsom interviews since he began his Derby rides back in 1951. Sheikh Mohammed had never done this before, and here we were offering him a “Stripper-Pen.”
He smiled but he was not silly. He listened to the questions but was in control of his answers. The English he had learned at the Bell language school in Cambridge was clear and his voice went deep and warm when he talked of horses. Racing will always welcome rich men just because they are rich. No one knew anything about Dubai in those days but we imagined these guys must have a few quid. How much was beyond our wildest dreams. So too was the immensity of Sheikh Mohammed’s ambition and the strength of the twin pillars on which it was constructed, his belief in Dubai and his physical passion for the horse.
The interview went all right and but Jalmood didn’t, finishing way behind the Vincent O’Brien trained, Robert Sangster owned Golden Fleece who had looked so sweaty and heavy cantering down that Lester Piggott had given our viewers the terse summary “don’t fancy that.” But there was plenty in my brief meeting with Jalmood’s owner which stayed in the mind even amongst the whirling hotchpot of memories which crowd your skill after presenting a major sports event like Derby Day. It’s not just hindsight to say that there was a directness about him which appealed in a world where too many have deviousness as default. He had the means to do things and he seemed to like the game. Seemed to like me.
A month later he was at Keeneland Sales in Kentucky. I was a broadcaster not a bidder, and it was hard to find words enough to describe the challenge that Sheikh Mohammed was throwing down to the Robert Sangster team who once again bought the sale topper, a colt by Golden Fleece’s sire Nijinsky, for a cool $4.25 million. These were the high days of the Sangster, Magnier, O’Brien triumvirate. A year earlier they had syndicated Storm Bird for $30 million. At this 1982 sale alone they bought 10 lots for $13.8 million. They were cocks of the walk but Sheikh Mohammed also bought 19 yearlings for $12 million in the sweltering Kentucky night. He had flown there in his own 727. His aide John Leat asked me to breakfast with them at the Carlton Tower that Saturday. It seemed rude not to.
Mind you it was a bit inconvenient, and for the saddest of reasons. For on the very same day that the Sangster and Maktoum empires were spending millions on young thoroughbreds in America, an IRA nail bomb killed seven horses and five Household Cavalry soldiers in Hyde Park. In its shock the nation had somehow fastened on to 19 year old Sefton as a superb, dumb symbol of suffering as the ancient charger stood in his box with a weepy left eye, 34 separate wounds across his great black body and a gaping hole in his jugular down which Corporal-of-Horse O’Flaherty had stuffed his shirt to staunch the blood. The Sunday Times wanted me to interview Sefton at Knightsbridge Barracks before reporting on the King George VI and Queen Elisabeth II Stakes at Royal Ascot. At least the barracks were only half a mile up Sloane Street. But breakfast would have to be quick.
Sheikh Mohammed wanted to ask about others. I told him of the “squash ladders” of Sangster horses that Robert had displayed on the walls of the office at his Isle of Man home with the slightly inappropriate name of “The Nunnery”. He told of his wish to have winning horses and to spread the word about Dubai. At Ascot that afternoon his older brother Sheikh Hamdan was to see his latest purchase, the royal filly Height of Fashion, but she missed the break and never threatened behind Kalaglow. Getting £1.2 million and using it to buy Dick Hern’s West Ilsley Stables looked like good business for The Queen. But Height of Fashion became one of the greatest brood mares of the era with offspring headed by Guineas and Derby winner Nashwan. The Maktoums would get their dividend all right.
But back then it was still hard to get your head around it. Sheikh Mohammed took a group of us out to Dubai and whizzed us about by Range Rovers and helicopter. We stayed in the Hilton next to Dubai’s version of the World Trade Centre. This had been built in 1978 a year before Sheikh Mohammed’s first marriage was the biggest ever event in Dubai up to that date and he himself had starred by galloping past the guests standing on the back first of a horse and then of a camel. His World Trade Centre was all of 39 stories and 149 metres high. In 2010 he masterminded the opening of the Burj Al Khalifa. It had 110 floors and stretched 829 metres, 2,723 feet into the desert sky. Those were the giddy heights to which the plans would stretch.
It was easier to be on the doubting side. On our first visit the dual carriageway of Sheikh Zayeed Road stopped at the World Trade Centre and became a dusty hard track for the rest of its journey to Abu Dhabi. Coming back 6 months later there had been no change. Sheikh Mohammed took a bunch of us round his stables and told of his ambition to condition his own horses out there. “What will they eat,” chuckled one trainer, “sand?” We were given the royal treatment, drinks included. One night another well-fuelled trainer leapt on the dining room table to show us how he danced.
Sheikh Mohammed just swept on. There were early morning camel races round an 8 km circuit and if you expressed interest he put you in the car and drove alongside the posse shouting instructions to the boy jockeys for all the world like a rowing coach in a regatta launch. There were banquets on gold plate when the over polite “yes” to Sheikh Hamdan’s enquiry “you do like goat” meant the unwanted compliment of a vast second helping of a not entirely appetising meat dish being delivered by the great man’s own hand. There were sore-bottom camel rides in the desert where Sheikh Mohammed was surely getting his own back for some of the sniffy superiority emanating from our crew. Best of all were the private moments when the Sheikh told it as it was.
“My father had this vision,” he said sitting out by the campfire one night, with camels tethered in the background, a timeless Bedouin feel all around, “to make Dubai a centre for travel and business. The creek has always given us a harbour, but now we will have great airports and we will be a place where people will want to come. My father Sheikh Rashid was very wise. I want to show you all how welcoming Dubai can be. I want to put Dubai on the map and our racing can help that too. Horses are in our blood. When a camel train was trekking across the desert, the horses were the corvettes in the convoy. If we had enemies who needed raiding we would hitch up the horses and swoop off to attack. We love all our horses and we will love our racehorses too.”
The world now knows to quite what a mind boggling extent all those original ideas have grown. Skyscrapers loom over where we sat in the desert and while the credit crunch made Dubai the world centre of idle cranes and unfinished buildings, its energy, entrepreneurship and adaptability will soon put them back up in the game. Somehow no such crunch has ever hit the racing side and the Maktoum holding now spreads literally right round the globe to America, Australia and Japan.
The holdings back in 1982 were puny by comparison but the year before had seen the completion of the purchase of Dalham Hall Stud who included a mare called Oh So Fair who, but three months before that Derby interview foaled a chestnut filly who, as Oh So Sharp was to become one of the greatest racemares in racing history landing the female version of the Triple Crown. Riches beyond the dream of avarice are a help of course but go with Sheikh Mohammed anywhere on his equine empire and you will find that his interest is very genuinely of the physical, not just the pleasurable or prize money kind.
You don’t ride with your sons in 100 km endurance championships and not be deeply into the whole physicality of the horse. At Al Quoz before the dawn came up one morning, and when today’s skyscrapers were merely an architects dream, a car was already parked beside the exercise track. “I did not want to sleep,” said Sheikh Mohammed, “the horses will be here soon.” One mad afternoon in the desert, he invited the whole Gulf to see a showdown between 402 camels and 28 horses galloping 25 miles towards the three o’clock sun. He led the race himself on a horse called Abyan Al Ashqan. In an earlier life it had won four races in Florida over six furlongs under the unromantic name of Sample Copy. He completed the course in one hour and 12 minutes, less than 5O seconds behind his 12 year old daughter Hassa. We think he was giving away four stone.
So when people, sometimes a shade pretentiously, suggest an audit of Sheikh Mohammed’s effect on our racing world, it’s useful to go back to the situation in 1982. For sure the boom was on in bloodstock but it was in severe danger of happening against the interest of those who wanted to watch horses on the track. Both Golden Fleece and the 1984 Derby winner Secreto never ran after Epsom, victims apparently of injuries but also trapped by high stud valuation into being that four legged oxymoron “a racehorse too valuable to race“/
Sheikh Mohammed could give us the advantage of not having to think of the bottom line. “Of course I will run my horses as four year olds,” he said on that steamy Kentucky night in July 1982. “I love to watch the horse in the race. If he is healthy, he will run. Stud will come later.” Suddenly things like syndicate values seemed less relevant and we were back to something more like a galloping art collection. “For picture lovers,” I wrote in the Sunday Times at the weekend, “things are looking up.” Thirty years on, that conclusion still stands.