Some people may have been surprised to see a relatively unknown 18-year-old jockey aboard Jazil in the June 10 Belmont Stakes (gr. I)-but they shouldn't have been.
The horse's owner, Sheikh Hamdan, a member of Dubai's ruling family, is a man of commitment and loyalty. Young Fernando Jara knew Jazil and rode him well, the sheikh reasoned, and there was no reason to cast him aside, no matter who else was available.
That loyalty paid off in spades when Jara kept his cool after losing his stirrup coming out of the gate, then guiding Jazil to a last-to-first victory in the classic race where riding experience is supposed to mean the most.
You can ask Rick Nichols, the vice president and general manager of Shadwell Farm for 21 years, about Sheikh Hamdan's loyalty. Nichols might tell the story of a farm worker who was killed in an accident away from the farm a number of years ago. When Sheikh Hamdan learned of the death of the man, who left a wife and two young boys behind, he told Nichols: "Be sure the family is taken care of, that those boys never are in want of anything. Make sure they have an opportunity to get a good education. We'll take the place of their father."
Similarly, when trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was training privately for Sheikh Hamdan in Dubai and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, "The boss got him to the Mayo Clinic," Nichols said. "I don't know how he did it, but he got him there right away."
More than that, Nichols said, when McLaughlin was having physical difficulties in the early stages of the disease, Sheikh Hamdan supported him by sending him more horses. "Even after Kiaran left direct employment for Sheikh Hamdan," Nichols said, "there was no question that he would be our main trainer in the United States."
Sheikh Hamdan's commitment to his horses is just as strong. "A lot of people think we operate with an open checkbook, but we don't," Nichols said. "But if there is a need for something, he always asks me one thing: to take the absolute best care of his horses possible. You explain it and if there is a good reason, he'll support you on it."
He's a businessman, too. A good part of his racing stable's expansion into American racing is a desire by Sheikh Hamdan to improve the farm's stallion roster. He understands American breeders of the 21st century are not as interested as their predecessors were in breeding mares to champion turf horses from Europe, which is where the sheikh has had his greatest success over the last 20 years.
"We've got to develop stallions here," Nichols said. "That's why he's leaving us nice colts with good pedigrees. He wants to support Shadwell. He loves this farm, and he knows the best way to succeed is to develop the stallion end of the business."
During Sheikh Hamdan's annual visits to Shadwell in September, Nichols said, "He loves getting in the truck after dinner and going out to look at the mares and babies. He must have a photographic memory. He'll see a mare and know who it is, who trained her, what races she's won, and how her foals have done. How he does it, I just don't know.
"It's not like that's all he has to do. He is the deputy minister of Dubai. His plate is full. He works very, very hard. There are times he'll call me and I'll notice it's two o'clock in the morning over there and he'll say they are just finishing up with things.
"He is an unbelievable man to work for. Sometimes he's like a brother. Sometimes he's like a father figure to me. But he's always the boss."