Sheik Mohammed's bid fills Derby bill

April 30, 1999|By John Eisenberg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A bloodstock agent called to say a buyer was interested in his horse. Set a price, the agent told John Mabee.

A wealthy Californian, Mabee set a price he thought no one would meet. Five million dollars for a 2-year-old colt who had raced only four times.

Outrageous, Mabee thought.

Deal, the agent said instantly.

As quick as that, one of the nation's top 2-year-olds disappeared from Mabee's barn last fall.

Who had met his "outrageous" price? The agent wouldn't say. Mabee didn't know for weeks. Only when he finally learned the buyer was the Godolphin Racing Stable did the bizarre affair make sense.

Godolphin is by far the world's richest racing outfit, owned by sheiks from the ruling family of Dubai, an oil-rich state in the United Arab Emirates. Backed by unlimited resources, they have spent many millions on top horses over the years and won all the major races in Europe.

Their stunning purchase of Worldly Manner from Mabee's barn last fall, just weeks after the colt had won the Del Mar Futurity, sent a clear signal that, at long last, the Maktoum brothers were setting their sights on the Kentucky Derby.

The sound you heard was a gulp from America's racing fraternity.

If the Maktoums' domination of European racing is any precedent, they're not going to dabble at the Derby, and they're not going to stop until they win it.

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum said as much yesterday in a long interview with reporters outside Godolphin's barn at Churchill Downs. The stable is running Worldly Manner and Al jabr in the Derby tomorrow.

"This is our first time, and we may be wrong [about how the horses were prepped]," said Maktoum, dressed casually in jeans, riding spurs and a dark blue sweater, "but we will learn. I will say this: We'll be back."

Back with more money than anyone in the game.

Ominous words, indeed.

The sheiks could buy up all the top Derby contenders in any year if they so desired and the owners were willing. They tried to buy Prime Timber, another top contender this year, but owner Aaron Jones turned down their $6 million offer.

Expect more of the same before next year's Derby.

"Winning the Kentucky Derby is a wonderful challenge, and we love challenges," SheikMohammed said.

They have taken on the challenge in a most uncommon way this year, drilling Worldly Manner and Aljabr at their training center in Dubai instead of bringing them to America to run in Derby prep races such as the Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.

Prep races toughen horses for the traffic-clogged Kentucky Derby, which isn't for the timid or pampered.

When a supposed French superhorse named Arazi tried to win the Derby seven years ago without running in an American prep beforehand, he faded badly down the stretch and finished eighth, the biggest bust in Derby history. Knee surgery had compromised his preparation, but he basically just wasn't tough enough.

Worldly Manner's story is similar. He's healthy, unlike Arazi, but he hasn't raced since recording his third win in four starts last September. His preparation has consisted of one so-called "training race," an unofficial event at an empty track in Dubai, with music piped in to simulate crowd noise.

He was shipped to Churchill last week and given a long, extremely slow workout Sunday, followed by another slow workout yesterday, just 48 hours before the Derby. The last horse to get a workout so close to the race was, uh, Arazi.

Sheik Mohammed's rivals are skeptical of his training tactics, to say the least.

"You can't put a line through them [and count the horses out]," D. Wayne Lukas said, "but you can't put them in your exacta, either."

Sheik Mohammed smiled at the skepticism.

"We'll find out," he said. "We think our horses are ready."

Before you dismiss them, consider this: Sheik Mohammedwon England's Epsom Derby four years ago with a horse that hadn't raced as a 3-year-old. He had tired of traveling from Dubai to Europe for prep races, so the colt trained at home in Dubai. The press skewered him for entering such an untested horse in England's biggest race, but the sheiklaughed last.

He's a savvy horseman who has raced horses for 25 years and won everything in sight.

"We'll try this way again next year, and probably for the next four or five years," he said. "If it hasn't worked at that point, we'll change."

Across the backside, Mabee, owner of Derby contenders General Challenge and Excellent Meeting, didn't hesitate when asked if he regretted selling Worldly Manner.

"I wished I'd never set a price when they asked me," he said.

Not setting a price was the only way to keep the horse.

A price, any price, is all the Maktoum brothers need.

They once spent $41 million on yearlings at a single sale in 1984.

Sheik Mohammed's wedding cost $44 million, the most of any wedding in history, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records."

Price isn't a problem.

That's why Godolphin is a short-odds bet to win the Derby one of these years, probably sooner than later.

"I have hope this year," Sheik Mohammed said yesterday, "but this is a great race and you can't expect to win it the first time. We're here to learn this year. But I hope to win in the next four years."

Pub Date: 4/30/99

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