Those who say sports and politics do not mix are either immune to reality or, quite possibly, unfamiliar with Thoroughbred racing. Can there be a stronger link between the two seemingly unrelated pastimes than there is between world leaders and the international sport of kings, queens, sheikhs, and princes?
Look no further than this year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont Park on Oct. 27. Several of the day's most prominent story lines trace to individuals from Arabian Gulf nations, where a number of the terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 were born or raised.
The Maktoum family -- Sheikhs Mohammed, Hamdan, and Maktoum al Maktoum -- rules Dubai and holds important government positions within the United Arab Emirates, traditionally a strong U.S. ally. In our sliver of the world, Thoroughbred racing and breeding, the Maktoum family is known for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a massive, quality-rich stable of Thoroughbreds. They are considered to be sportsmen of the highest level, though fiercely competitive.
The brothers' individual stables and combined operation, Godolphin, will be broadly represented in the World Thoroughbred Championships. They number among their runners the exceptional Fantastic Light, a world traveler who earlier this fall handed previously unbeaten Galileo his first defeat in the Irish Champion Stakes (Ire-I).
In the political arena, the U.S. government in recent years has been critical of Dubai's ineffectiveness in dealing with illegal money-laundering activities, the type of which are believed to have funded the terrorist attacks. However, as recently as Oct. 14, Sheikh Hamdan is reported to have said the outbreak of war between the U.S. and terrorist groups had not changed what he called the U.A.E.'s "open, clean, and known to all" economic policy. "Nothing will change our economic policy," he added.
Sheikh Hamdan also stressed the U.A.E. "was among the countries that fight terrorism and among the first states who had suffered from it. We totally reject terrorism."
Horses owned by Khalid Abdullah and Ahmed Salman, two Saudi Arabian businessmen who are members of that nation's royal family, also are expected to play a major role at Belmont on Oct. 27. Prince Khalid will be represented by Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Aptitude against Galileo and Fantastic Light in the Classic, and his Flute will be among the favorites in the Distaff (gr. I).
Prince Ahmed owns the sensational Officer, the unbeaten and untested California-bred son of Bertrando who will be odds-on to win the Juvenile (gr. I). He also owns Habibti, also unbeaten in two starts and the probable second choice in the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I).
Neither Prince Khalid nor Prince Ahmed are part of Saudi Arabia's ruling family, a longtime friend to the U.S. but the recipient of criticism for what some see as a lack of cooperation in the war against terrorism. The two horse owners should not be linked with another Saudi prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, who, while presenting a gift of $10 million to an organization supporting the victims of the Sept. 11 attack, criticized U.S. policies in the Middle East. An outraged Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York, returned the $10 million.
This year's World Thoroughbred Championships will be dedicated to the innocent victims of the vicious terrorist attacks. A good way to remember them and support their families is by attending Belmont Park or a simulcast site, recognizing that a portion of proceeds will be directed to the NTRA Charities/New York Heroes Fund. Impossible as it seems, let's try to put politics aside for this day and focus on a common thread shared by Arab sheikhs and princes and by millions of Americans -- the love of the Thoroughbred and the international sport of horse racing.