Prince Ahmed bin Salman.

Prince Ahmed bin Salman.

Winning the Derby is Princely Deed for Owner

Published in the May 11 issue of The Blood-Horse
The owner thought winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) was going to be a piece of cake. After all, he himself had bred the running machine known as "The Big Red Train" who in looks, stature, and talent reminded everyone of the great Secretariat. The Derby seemed a mere formality on the way to the Triple Crown.

Yet because it looked so easy, the owner was nervous to the point where he "could not move." And then, whether because of the pace, the training regimen, or the track surface, Point Given threw in the only clunker of his 3-year-old year, finishing fifth in the 2001 Run for the Roses. But sometimes, what the Derby gods taketh away, they give back.

And so it is that one year after his Point Given delivered to Prince Ahmed Salman a crushing defeat, the 43-year-old Saudi Arabian media magnate found his way to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle in the hoofprints of his speedy 2002 victor, War Emblem.

Whereas Point Given was raised by the prince's The Thoroughbred Corp., War Emblem was little more than a stranger to Salman and his sizable entourage come Derby Day. Last fall, the prince looked sure to bring another favorite to Churchill Downs this year, but the previously undefeated Officer betrayed his connections by losing the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and repeated his failure to get two turns in the Cal Cup Juvenile mere days later.

Half a world away from Saudi Arabia, however, Chicago industrialist Russell Reineman was campaigning War Emblem to wins at Arlington Park, Fair Grounds, and two scores at Sportsman's Park. The last one, a devastating annihilation of a good Illinois Derby (gr. II) field, caught everyone's eye, including trainer Bob Baffert, who conditioned both Point Given and Officer for the prince. Reineman had decided not to run War Emblem in the Derby, and instead hung a price tag of just under $1 million on him. Salman stepped up to the plate, and knee chips and all, War Emblem was delivered to the Royal Baffert Team, with Reineman maintaining a 10% slice.

"Everybody buys the Derby," Salman said immediately after the triumph when asked if he felt he had unfairly bought the world's biggest race. "When you buy a horse as a weanling or a yearling or a 2-year-old in training, you have to pay to raise the horse and train the horse and keep the horse. That's spending money; that's buying, isn't it?

"I breed horses; I buy horses at the sales; I bought a horse from Argentina. This one I bought four weeks ago. And I think it is much smarter to buy one four weeks before and win the Kentucky Derby than raise them. If Bob (Baffert) guarantees we're going to win the Derby, I'll buy one like this again."

Salman has been involved with horses his whole life. At the age of seven he won a horsemanship cup in his native land. He also saw the Kentucky Derby on television as a child. It became a dream of his to win the race, "one of the main ambitions of my life."

In the 1970s he took his first small strides toward fulfilling the dream. He came to America as a student, attending military school at the Wentworth Academy in Colorado for two years. Heading west, he ended up at the University of California-Irvine, where he befriended Thoroughbred trainer Richard Mulhall, who had a nearby farm. The pair began doing well with modest claimers. "I started out small because I didn't have much money back then," said the prince, who raced as Universal Stable in the early days.

He raised the stakes after seeing a beautiful filly at a Barretts sale in 1996. Sharp Cat became not only an outstanding racehorse, she elevated the prince's commitment level to the sport. "She got me excited about racing," he said. "Buying expensive horses came from her because I became emotionally involved."

His horses became involved in winning major races. In 1996 Jewel Princess won the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) and an Eclipse Award. Oath captured the 1999 Epsom Derby (Eng-I). That same year, Anees took the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on his way to an Eclipse. Royal Anthem, Lear Fan, Windsharp, Military, Fantastic Fellow, Dr. Fong, Sapphire Ring, Desert Hero, and Crafty Friend were some of the other runners who carried The Thoroughbred Corp.'s green and white colors to stakes conquests.

The prince spreads his stock among some of the finest trainers in America, including Richard Mandella, Bill Mott, Steve Asmussen, and D. Wayne Lukas. But he likely has the most fun with Baffert. "He is a genuine guy. If a horse isn't good, he tells you," Salman said.

Today Salman, a nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, runs his country's biggest publishing and media group. Saudi Research and Marketing has television stations, newspapers, an advertising arm, and a holding company. "I hustle like crazy, and when I get the money it goes straight to Keeneland," he joked.

In a year of vast tensions between Arab nations and the United States, Salman is a worthy goodwill ambassador, though he is careful to steer clear of politics. He takes great pride in being the first Arab owner to win the Kentucky Derby while acknowledging the U.S. is "my second home. It is not only a great achievement for me but for the people of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia associated with our friends in the United States of America. In America the horse people are nice people. This isn't a war. We have a good time."

He was certainly enjoying one as War Emblem pulled away from the Derby field down the stretch. Turning to his trainer, the prince said, "Pinch me, pinch me, are we really going to win it?" Asked what his thoughts were at that moment, Salman replied, "I was thinking the roses."

And that's exactly what he came up smelling like after this late, great purchase.