Off To The Races

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai willingly spends millions to make his mark in the sport of kings.

May 10, 2000|By Ann Lolordo | Ann Lolordo,SUN STAFF

The ivory note card could have been mistaken for a traditional wedding announcement. But the invitation from His Highness Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum offered its holder the chance to dine with a desert prince in a tented palace on the Arabian sands. It promised a choice seat at the Dubai World Cup, the globe's richest horse race.

It put Joe De Francis on the home turf of Godolphin Racing Inc., world racing's Middle Eastern royals, petrol-rich and primed to win the sport's premier trophies -- continent by continent. In three days in March, halfway around the world, De Francis experienced the phenomena of Godolphin, the genius and largess of its founder, Sheik Mohammed and his three brothers, and the transformation of the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai from Bedouin outback to Beverly Hills glitz.

The owner of Pimlico Race Course dined with other guests at the Burj Al Arab, a glittering sail of glass and steel rising from an island in the Arabian Gulf, billed as the world's only 7-star hotel and "a monument worthy of a new millennium." He watched the World Cup races with hundreds of colleagues from Australia, Europe, Asia and America. In the 88-horse field, the Maktoum family owned more than a third of the entries and paid out $11.75 million in prizes.

Sheik Mohammed named his stable for one of the Arabian stallions that sired the thoroughbred breed. After capturing the top prizes in Europe, he has set his sights on America's racing plums. This past weekend, his horses made their second run at the Kentucky Derby. China Visit, a long shot from the start, finished sixth. Curule finished seventh.

"Watch out," the sheik said, standing on the backstretch of Churchill Downs in stone-washed jeans and signature blue Godolphin T-shirt. "When Godolphin aims at something, they are going to get it."

They've purchased prime Kentucky farmland and promising American horses. And "other than the Triple Crown, they have won about every race there is to win in the world," said De Francis. "They created the richest race in the world" -- the Dubai cup -- "which they've won three times." Their "American project" is to race a series of 2-year-old horses in the states, select the most promising, ship them to Dubai and train them to win the Triple Crown, America's big races.

Sheik Mohammed has decided against coming to the Preakness this year, though his horse Worldly Manner ran in it last year. He will race Curule in the Belmont Stakes in New York, the last of the crown races.

When he arrives in the Bluegrass Country of Lexington, Ky., or the bayside city of Baltimore, the sheik is usually aboard his private jumbo jet with the cursive Arabic logo of Emirates Airlines on its side. He prefers jeans and suits to the traditional, long cotton gown and head scarf worn by many Arab men in the Middle East.

Sheik Mohammed is a compact man with black, close-cropped hair and a clipped beard. At 50, he is a rider of 100-mile endurance races, a night owl who pens poems in the great lyric tradition of his Arab ancestors. He is a family man whose 1981 wedding and its $44 million price tag made the Guinness Book of World Records.

His license plate reads Dubai One, and he is an avid promoter of his country -- his guests return to the United States extolling his desert paradise. He lives in a grand, if not ostentatious, palace whose arched entrance is crowned by a bronze sculpture of five prancing horses.

Two years ago, after finishing an endurance race in Dubai, Sheik Mohammed summoned a visiting broadcaster for a post-race interview. He didn't shower. He didn't change clothes. Sitting in a tent, a baseball cap turned backward on his head, the sheik answered Chris Lincoln's questions one by one. But it was the image that mattered most.

"This is the way I want people to know me -- not as an Arab sheik but as a true horseman," the sheik told Lincoln, a racing announcer from Oklahoma who has worked the Dubai race the past five years.

The `Boss'

At Churchill Downs, the day before the Derby, a charcoal gray GMC Suburban with tinted windows pulled up outside Barn 45 about 7 a.m. Out jumped the "The Boss." His blue T-shirt was embroidered with the clef-like Arabic G. A cell phone, a blue Godolphin pen and sunglasses were tucked into his jeans pockets. He wore spurs on his brown-heeled boots. His drivers wore button-down shirts and ties.

The Boss walked over to Festival of Light, a dark brown colt in the Godolphin house, and reached out to stroke its head. The horse pulled away. The Boss patted its nose. The horse jerked again. With his deep brown eyes locked on Festival of Light, the sheik leaned into the horse, pursed his lips and gently blew into the animal's face. It was a gesture as equine-like as a whinny. Then he was off to stroll the backstretch.

Nine staffers followed, nearly all clad in blue Godolphin rain jackets, only the most senior wearing blue-faced Godolphin watches. Gifts from The Boss.

Picture this:

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