King's sport fit for prince

Godolphin Racing: Sheikh Mohammed's racing empire has won nearly every race in the world except a Triple Crown event, but that soon may change

Kentucky Derby

May 02, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The big horse in this year's Kentucky Derby is not Point Given, even though reporters continually describe the race favorite as colossal.

No, the big horse in Saturday's race at Churchill Downs is Express Tour. The entrant of Godolphin Racing, the international stable based in the Middle East, measures 17.2 hands. Point Given measures 17 hands. Both horses weigh more than 1,200 pounds.

(A hand equals 4 inches. Horses are measured from the ground to the withers, the highest point of the back.)

The fact that Express Tour looms taller than his American counterparts is perhaps a metaphor for Godolphin Racing's potential impact on the Triple Crown series -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Godolphin Racing, the creation of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai, has won nearly every major race in the world -- but not a Triple Crown race. Express Tour represents its third attempt at winning the Derby, a quest that observers in this country believe will eventually be fulfilled.

"There's not any doubt in my mind that they're going to win the Derby," said D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of four Derby winners. "I think the man's conviction is strong. And I think when he does it, he's going to let everybody know he did it his way."

The man is Sheikh Mohammed, defense minister of the United Arab Emirates and a member of the ruling family of Dubai, one of the emirates that lies on the shore of the Persian Gulf. He and his brothers formed Godolphin Racing in 1994 with the idea of training horses on the sands of Dubai and then shipping them around the world to compete in premier races.

The effort has been hugely successful. Godolphin has won 65 races carrying the sports' highest classification, Group One (known as Grade I in North America) in 10 countries. Its four Grade I victories in the United Stakes, all on turf, include the Breeders' Cup Turf in 1999 with Daylami.

Although Godolphin has been based in Dubai for only seven years, Sheikh Mohammed has been racing thoroughbreds primarily in Europe since 1980. In two decades, he has spent about $1 billion worldwide buying horses.

Steve Asmussen, the American trainer of Fifty Stars in this year's Kentucky Derby, has keen insight into the Godolphin operation through his brother Cash, a former jockey in Europe.

"What a phenomenal ambition," Steve Asmussen said, "to dominate the world of horse racing."

Asked whether Godolphin will win a Kentucky Derby, Asmussen said, "Absolutely."

Asked why, he said, "Resources."

Coupled with enormous wealth from oil is Sheikh Mohammed's willingness to try, to lose and to learn.

In 1999, his first foray into the American classics, Sheikh Mohammed finished seventh in the Derby and 12th in the Preakness with Worldly Manner, a colt purchased in the United States for a reported $5 million. Last year, he finished sixth and seventh in the Derby with China Visit and Curule, respectively.

American observers questioned Godolphin's tactics. How could it expect to win perhaps this country's most demanding race by training horses in Dubai, racing them sparingly and shipping them at the last minute to Kentucky?

Sheikh Mohammed responded last year by hiring Eoin Harty, a key assistant to trainer Bob Baffert, a two-time Derby winner. Harty's assignment: Train Godolphin 2-year-olds in California, provide them a foundation in American racing and ship them back to Dubai for their 3-year-old seasons and final preparation for the Triple Crown races.

Shiekh Mohammed also created 3-year-old prep races in Dubai so that his horses could gain experience before traveling to the States for the Derby.

Street Cry, who finished third for Harty last year in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, won the $250,000 UAE (United Arab Emirates) Two Thousand Guineas on March 1 at Dubai's Nad al Sheba racecourse. Three weeks later, Express Tour out-gamed Street Cry by a nose in the $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai.

The quality of competition in those races may be questionable, but Street Cry and Express Tour earned their way into the Kentucky Derby to carry the royal blue silks of Godolphin. But after arriving at Churchill Downs, Street Cry suffered a minor ankle injury. Express Tour inherited the role of lone Godolphin hope.

Express Tour's five-month layoff followed Godolphin's purchase of the Tour d'Or colt late last year out of Florida. He had won three straight races in the Florida Stallion series when Godolphin bought him for a reported $1.1 million.

Despite his victory over Street Cry, Express Tour arrived in Louisville as the lesser regarded of the two. He missed a few days of training because of a bruised foot, and experts questioned his ability to handle the Derby's 1 1/4 miles. But many of those same experts have been impressed with his imposing presence and powerful training.

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