Industry Closely Watches Dubai Debt Crisis

Industry Closely Watches Dubai Debt Crisis
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Sheik Mohammed examines a yearling at the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale.

The debt crisis in Dubai was being closely monitored Nov. 27 by buyers and sellers of high-end Thoroughbreds, but there was no immediate indication Dubai's ruler would scale back his enormous financial ties to the industry in the United States and elsewhere.

The emirate's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, and his family have been among the highest spenders at major American Thoroughbred auctions dating to the 1980s, often paying millions of dollars for top bloodstock even during market downturns such as the current one.

Dubai World, the main investment arm of the Middle Eastern city-state, is asking for at least a six-month delay on paying back a nearly $60 billion debt. It was unclear what effect the country's debt crisis would have on the sheikh's horse racing and breeding interests and whether the American Thoroughbred market would feel any repercussions.

"We've seen no sign that it's going to have any impact, and we certainly hope they're able to work their way through the situation," said Nick Nicholson, president of Keeneland, the Lexington racetrack and auction house where the sheikh is a major buyer and regularly attends sales.

Sheikh Mohammed has been a longtime horse enthusiast. He is one of the world's premier endurance riders and is married to Princess Haya of Jordan, president of the International Equestrian Federation.

In 2001, he bulked up his horse operations in the United States with the purchase of Jonabell Farm near Lexington. Among the top stallions stabled there are 2007 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Street Sense   and his sire, Street Cry, 2006 Preakness (gr. I) winner Bernardini  , and Medaglia d'Oro  , who sired Rachel Alexandra, winner of this year's Kentucky Oaks (gr . I) and Preakness.

Oliver Tait, chief operating officer at Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley near Lexington, declined to comment Friday about the debt crisis except to say that operations at the farm hadn't changed.

"It's business as usual," Tait said. "Our object has remained the same. We're carrying on."

Seven horses owned by the sheikh's Godolphin Racing stable have run in the Kentucky Derby, including Desert Party and Regal Ransom this year. The highest finish for a Godolphin horse in the Derby is sixth, by China Visit in 2000.

Sheikh Mohammed's goal of winning a Derby has been amplified in recent years with some record-shattering purchases of not just stallions but also mares, including Playful Act, which he bought in 2007 at Keeneland for an unprecedented $10.5 million.

"Sheikh Mohammed obviously has a passion for Thoroughbred racing," said Case Clay, president of Three Chimneys Farm near Midway, Ky. "I'm guessing the money he's using to buy is small potatoes compared to what's going on over in Dubai. If it all falls down in Dubai, I think he still has disposable income to enjoy horse racing."

In this month's recently concluded Keeneland November sale, however, neither Sheikh Mohammed nor his representative John Ferguson participated, even though the sale featured the dispersal of about 150 horses that belonged to the Kentucky horse breeding operation Overbrook Farm.

"I think many of us were surprised given some of the pedigrees we were selling," said Ric Waldman, who served as Overbrook's stallion consultant.

The influence of Dubai on horse racing extends far beyond the sheikh's individual interest. Last year, a company headed by one of his close associates purchased Fasig-Tipton, the other major horse auction company in Lexington.

Dubai each year also hosts the world's richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). A world-class racecourse seating 60,000 people is being planned for next year's event.

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