Everyone knows by now that Sheikh Mohammed wants to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), as evidenced by the amounts of money he’s spending for ready-made Derby horses. But that’s not entirely correct. He wants to win the Kentucky Derby with a horse trained in Dubai.
The Thoroughbred Corp’s Prince Ahmed Salman of Saudi Arabia has already won the Derby (he died two months later), so it’s not like Sheikh Mohammed is attempting to do something unprecedented by becoming the first Arab to own a Kentucky Derby winner. With Sheikh Mohammed it’s all about geography. He has spent billions of dollars building a racing empire in Dubai that expands to the United States, Europe, and Australia (he is still attempting to establish a strong foothold in Japan), and that number will expand by 2010 when he unveils his new super racetrack and the city he is building around it.
Being able to win the Kentucky Derby with a horse trained in Dubai and wearing the elite blue silks of Godolphin would be a crowning achievement, not because Sheikh Mohammed has a bottomless pit of wealth to purchase our best horses and major racing operations around the world, but because he has something to prove. And that is, the environment he has created in his homeland – from the racetrack and training facilities to the people he has hired – is the best in the world to race and prepare horses. What better way to prove it than by winning the Kentucky Derby with a horse coming from Dubai. He tried unsuccessfully from 1999 to 2002, but the only horse he sent over with a legitimate chance to win was Street Cry and he was injured a couple of weeks before the Derby. After that, he stopped trying. Perhaps it was Prince Ahmed’s success with War Emblem, whom he had purchased four weeks before the Derby, that took some of his hunger away. Whatever the reason, he disappeared from the Derby scene after that. But now, six years later, he has returned with a vengeance and a mission.
When anyone, even Sheikh Mohammed, pays a reported $12 million for a 2-year-old (grade I Hopeful and Champagne winner Vineyard Haven), it means the objective is mainly a racing one and not some long-range plan to syndicate the horse for tens of millions of dollars, based in good measure on bloodlines. In short, this was a Kentucky Derby purchase. The acquisition of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Midshipman was simply good fortune, as he was part of the package of Stonerside horses and property Sheikh Mo purchased in September. Immediately after the Juvenile, Midshipman was taken from three-time Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert, stripped of his Darley Stable maroon and white silks and, like Vineyard Haven, will now be adorned in Godolphin blue. This has nothing to do with Baffert. Sure, the horse has a better chance of winning the Derby with Baffert training him, but it appears obvious that Sheikh Mohammed wants more than that. He has built a magnificent oasis in what was nothing but desert 25 years ago, so can anyone criticize him for wanting his horses to receive their sustenance from that oasis?
But as comedian Steven Wright used to say, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
The truth is, Sheikh Mohammed has too many Derby hopefuls this year for his own good, if that is possible. He also purchased Jose Adan, who was disqualified from first in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. II). He has his wife Princess Haya’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Donativum with John Gosden in England and could point him for the new Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes on the all-weather surface at Kempton next year. A win there would guarantee him a spot in the Derby. And he also has a slew of Derby hopefuls still in the United States with trainers Eoin Harty and Kiaran McLaughlin who still don the Darley Stable colors. Because of the quarantine procedure, it soon will be too late to send those horses to Dubai in time to have them ready for an assault on the Kentucky Derby. Besides, where would you put them? How many Derby hopefuls can you have in Dubai without them all crashing into each other? It’s not as if there is an abundance of races in which they can run. As it is, having Vineyard Haven and Midshipman likely running against each other in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) would make for a tricky situation. Do they really want either one of them getting beat, especially a $12-million purchase who is by a Chilean-bred sire?
So, here are the questions Sheikh Mohammed faces: What does he do with his two big horses and how does he prepare them for the Kentucky Derby in such a small arena without them stepping on each other’s toes? Is he prepared for one of his other Derby hopefuls back in the States, or Donativum, ruining the master plan by defeating Midshipman and/or Vineyard Haven in the Derby in Darley’s or his wife’s colors?
Let’s be honest, maybe Sheikh Mohammed was not totally thrilled about one of his greatest treasures, Bernardini, emerging as a super horse in America in Darley’s colors instead of Godolphin’s. Is that why he swept him off to stud at the end of his 3-year-old campaign? Sheikh Mohammed at the time was starting to build up his Darley America stallion operation, so perhaps he wanted to begin producing little Bernardinis as quickly as possible. Only the Sheikh knows.
He also swept last year’s acquisitions Street Sense and Hard Spun off to stud at the end of their 3-year-old year, and this year he did the same with his English Derby (Eng-I) winner New Approach and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Raven’s Pass, both owned by Princess Haya. Only Sheikh Mohammed and his brain trust know what his agenda is and why one of the game’s great sportsmen has now become another collector of stallions.
Again, no one can put themselves in Sheikh Mohammed’s head, so we don’t what his master plan is other than to build up one of the most extensive and star-studded stallion rosters in the world.
But getting back to his Derby quest, one of the pitfalls he faces is the structure of his prep races. It could turn out to be something positive, but it could also backfire. That is the inclusion in the one-mile UEA Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-III), 1 1/8-mile Al Bastakiya, and most of all the 1 1/8-mile UAE Derby of Southern Hemisphere horses. It is a lot to ask of a young 3-year-old to have to face group I “older” horses from South America and South Africa in February and March. These horses are six months their senior, making them 4-year-olds by Northern Hemisphere standards, and they are tough, fast, seasoned campaigners, many of whom have already been through their own Triple Crown.
This could work one of two ways. If Midshipman and/or Vineyard Haven are talented enough to be competitive with these horses, as was Discreet Cat, then those races could serve to toughen them and prepare them for the rigors of the Kentucky Derby. Like a baseball player swinging a leaded bat prior to stepping to the plate, running toe to toe with the top Southern Hemisphere horses could make the American-based 3-year-olds seem “lighter,” so to speak.
On the other hand, the last thing you want is to run up against a monster like Asiatic Boy, who became the first horse to sweep the United Arab Emirates Triple Crown last year, annihilating his opposition by 10 lengths in the UAE Derby. It’s a fine line between toughening a horse and damaging his confidence. Both horses in question are already seasoned and battle-tested and have built a far stronger foundation than the previous Godolphin 3-year-olds. So, unlike past years, when one setback would prove disastrous, there is more room for error with these two horses.
The Godolphin horses receive the best of everything, with no expense spared. They are always in good flesh, the Al Quoz training center is second to none, there is no concern over missed training because of weather, and Nad al Sheba is a first-class track with a demanding three-eighths of a mile stretch run. In the ever expanding racing world why shouldn’t a horse win the Derby training in Dubai if he’s the best horse? Whether it’s good for a horse to prep for the Derby on such a long stretch, where horses often switch back to their left leads in the final furlong is anyone’s guess. On one hand, it could prevent them from being able to make a big move on the far turn, where many Derbys are won. But on the other hand, the long Churchill Downs stretch will seem a lot shorter and less intimidating to them than it will to most of their competitors.
The bottom line is, once he brings the Derby trophy back to Dubai there is a good chance he won't go about buying up every top 2-year-old he can get his hands on with the same vigor.