Belmont Winner's Owner-Breeder: Pleasant and Perfect
Updated: Monday, July 7, 2003 3:51 PM
Published in the June 14 issue of The Blood-Horse
Posted: Wednesday, June 11, 2003 2:18 PM
"Pleasant." That amounted to a major speech by the distinguished, pepper-haired gentleman in the paddock minutes before the running of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Prince Khalid Abdullah had just been asked how he was finding his rare visit to North America.
The pleasantness was shaded by disappointment moments later when Empire Maker, the reason for Abdullah's transatlantic journey, could manage only a second to Funny Cide at Churchill Downs. The horse, who had been hyped from the moment he touched down at Juddmonte Farms near Lexington, was carrying an impost of 126 pounds and much weightier expectations.
It wasn't until five weeks after the Derby, however, with Abdullah ensconced back home in England, that Empire Maker delivered his owner/breeder his first North American Triple Crown victory, powerfully navigating under the famous turquoise and pink silks through muck and mire to win a breathtaking Belmont Stakes (gr. I). If the timing wasn't quite right, well, redemption is always sweet.
"We'd built up the horse, so he was very disappointed after the Derby," said Dr. John Chandler, racing manager for Juddmonte's North American division, minutes after the Belmont. "The prince is not a good loser. As the man said, 'Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.' It's not like he goes around blaming anyone, but he's disappointed because he likes to win. I just spoke to him, and he's very excited about winning this race. His own network was covering it."
Abdullah, who eschews his royal title, is a first cousin of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. His Mawared conglomerate, which is now run in part by his four sons, is involved in television, satellite telephones, catering, electronics, insurance, and cement businesses. Abdullah, 67, also owns a 1% interest in Chase Manhattan Bank. As for his other empire, Thoroughbreds, Abdullah has enjoyed unparalleled success in the 26 years since he purchased his first mare. Juddmonte, with farms in England and Ireland as well as Kentucky, has been recognized with three Eclipse Awards (and counting) for top breeder and one as owner.
Until recently, however, Juddmonte's calling card was nearly exclusively grass runners with classic European pedigrees. A sea change was underway three years ago when Aptitude (A.P. Indy--Dokki, by Northern Dancer) finished second in both the Derby and Belmont, and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) a year later.
"Going back a few years, most of the top stallions in this country were European-type horses like Blushing Groom, Riverman, and Lyphard," said Chandler. "Since our primary racing operation is in Europe, we concentrated on those kinds of pedigrees. But more and more we've started breeding to some dirt horses with a view toward winning the Triple Crown and good dirt races. So even though Toussaud (dam of Empire Maker) was a grass filly and has two grade I winners on the turf (Chester House and Chiselling), Honest Lady won a grade I on dirt and now Empire Maker has three grade I wins on dirt." Chandler noted that Toussaud has just been bred to A.P. Indy in the hope of producing another classic-type dirt horse.
Having heard that, trainer Bobby Frankel chimed in, "Am I gonna train that one?" Chandler shot back, "Yes, well, it will be four years from now."
Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently about the Juddmonte operation than Abdullah's relationship with Frankel. And not just their odd couple status as an Arabian prince and a blue-collar Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Abdullah picks each mating for his mares year in and out, yet allows Frankel absolute free rein with racing decisions.
"My relationship with the prince has been very good," Frankel said. "Basically, he lets me call all the shots. That's why it works so well. I've never had any grief or a hard time. Everything's been smooth since I started training for him." Or as Chandler put it, "I ask Bobby what to do and he tells me."
As a result, Frankel can afford to run horses only when he considers it optimal to do so. If a horse isn't 100%, he can wait for another day to do battle. If he doesn't like the weights, the track condition, or his horoscope, he can choose to fight another time. The number of trainers afforded such a luxury can be counted on no hands.
Abdullah's racing operation began modestly enough with four yearling purchases in 1977. His first win came two years later, and in 1980, Known Fact benefited from the disqualification of Nureyev and was awarded the Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I). Shortly thereafter, Abdullah initiated his breeding operation, purchasing farms near Lexington; Berkshire, England; and in Ireland. The Lexington operation alone covers some 2,500 acres, and today Juddmonte owns 250 mares that are split between Europe and Kentucky.
At Banstead Manor near Newmarket, Juddmonte now stands stallions such as Dansili, Observatory, and Rainbow Quest, in addition to newcomers Beat Hollow and Zamindar. Stateside, up to 20 Juddmonte mares are bred each season to the operation's stallions Chester House, Mizzen Mast, Aptitude, and Distant View. In just 20 years of breeding, Juddmonte has produced 51 grade/group I winners. Today's racehorses and mares in many cases trace back two and three generations to some of the first mares purchased by the operation.
But of all the exceptional and classy runners campaigned by Juddmonte (see box below), perhaps none carried the expectations of Empire Maker. Garrett O'Rourke, Juddmonte's Lexington farm manager, said the colt "always went from strength to strength when we were breaking and training him. So we thought 'this could be the one.' We've been lucky enough to have magnificent horses over the years to compare him to, and to me he was the best we ever put out."
Hence the disappointment post-Derby, because the entire operation felt it had a potential Triple Crown winner on its hands. For now, they will have to settle for one-of-three. Said O'Rourke, "The whole program is geared for the classics and we won a classic today. That's the real beauty of it."
Now that European pedigrees are less fashionable in North America, Juddmonte has adapted and will continue to breed with an eye toward the dirt. Having tasted second-money in two of the last four Kentucky Derbys, and now with the Belmont trophy in tow, it would be no shock to see a Juddmonte colorbearer going for the Triple Crown sooner rather than later. Abdullah, who saw his late nephew Ahmed Salman win the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I) with War Emblem, is nothing if not a quick study.
So he will continue to plan these fabulous matings and select which yearlings go where to race. Of the 80 horses sent out each year by Juddmonte/Kentucky, a dozen of the cream are handpicked to go to Frankel. The operation figures to keep rolling like a snowball down a ravine, as horses like Empire Maker and Aptitude begin reproducing themselves at stud.
When the Belmont winner heads for his next career depends on what he accomplishes the remainder of this year. "If he were to win the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and had nothing left to prove, we'd be more likely to retire him," Chandler said. "Otherwise, we would certainly consider running him at four."
Making for more pleasant times in the world of Khalid Abdullah.
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