Captain Lord John FitzGerald: Horseracing trainer who helped Dubai's ruling family become one of the most powerful forces in his sport

FitzGerald had a keen brain, a real feeling for horses, and a dry sense of humour

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The Independent Online

The horseracing world lost one of its quieter achievers with the death of Lord John FitzGerald. Over more than 30 years, the Irish nobleman had various roles in what is both a sport and an industry and, aided by a keen brain, a real feeling for horses, an army-honed organisational ability and a notably dry sense of humour. He filled them all extremely well without becoming a household name.

Even within his own sphere, it is likely that not many today could name him as the man who put in train the vision that has had the most profound effect on modern racing. In 1992, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai's ruling family headhunted him to steer the United Arab Emirates, then a racing backwater, on to the international map.

Within four years Dubai had become a top-class global thoroughbred centre and Sheikh Mohammed's racing and breeding empires are now among the world's most powerful, influential and recognisable. FitzGerald oversaw the creation of the internationally recognised Emirates Racing Authority, the expansion to world-class standards of the country's biggest racetrack, Nad Al Sheba, and the founding in 1996 of the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race.

FitzGerald, a scion of what was once one of Ireland's most illustrious families, was educated at Millfield and followed his late father Gerald, 8th Duke of Leinster, to Sandhurst and into the 5th Royal Iniskillings, achieving the rank of captain and serving on the Rhine and as part of UN forces in Cyprus.

After the army, FitzGerald, who rode as an amateur jockey in more than 100 races, arrived in Newmarket, the self-styled headquarters of British racing, and worked as assistant to two of the town's most respected trainers, Bruce Hobbs and Tom Jones, before setting up on his own.

He made an immediate impact. In his first season with a licence, 1986, his second runner, Sizzling Melody, was a winner, going on to win at Royal Ascot and prove himself the fastest two-year-old sprinter of his generation. For all FitzGerald's touch, though, the timing for a new and expanding enterprise based on luxury items was wrong and by 1991 the recession and rising interest rates had forced him out of business.

Newmarket's loss proved a gain for Dubai, and two more growing racing jurisdictions, Hong Kong and Macau. FitzGerald finished his Far Eastern stint with two years as director of racing at the Macau Jockey Club. Returning to Europe in 2002, he operated as a private trainer at Hoppegarten in Germany for three years, and took up the post as racing manager to one of his oldest Newmarket friends, Kirsten Rausing, whose Lanwades Stud racing and breeding operation has been successful at the highest level.

FitzGerald, a direct descendant of William The Conqueror, was born in 1952 in Co Kildare at Kilkea Castle, a medieval stronghold which had been a family seat for seven centuries but which has since been sold. As the second son, FitzGerald had the courtesy title, but not a seat in the House Of Lords. His older brother Maurice, a landscape gardener, is the 9th Duke of Leinster; after the death of his nephew Thomas in a car crash in Ireland in 1997, Fitzgerald became heir presumptive to the title, a position now held by his son Edward.

The FitzGeralds rank top of the Peerage of Ireland (as well as Dukes they have held a host of titles, including Earls of Kildare and Offaly), though no longer as powerfully landed as in their heyday. It was they who built the 12th-century Maynooth Castle (now a mostly-ruined tourist site), Leinster House, the stateliest of Dublin's Georgian buildings and now home of the Irish parliament, and the magnificent Palladian mansion Carton House, now a hotel and golf centre.

The dynasty's fortune is long gone and its history has been colourful. Of the 5th Duke Gerald's three sons, the eldest Maurice, briefly the 6th Duke, died in an Edinburgh lunatic asylum in 1922; the next Desmond is thought to have been killed in action in France in 1916; and the third Edward, a compulsive gambler, married a chorus girl, was bankrupted three times and committed suicide in a Pimlico bedsit in 1976. His only child, the 8th Duke – John FitzGerald's father – steadied the ship before his death at the age of 90 in 2004.

Circumstances not of his making meant that the hugely well-liked and respected John FitzGerald was involved in family upheaval when his wife Barbara, whom he married in 1982, left him to become the partner of Lester Piggott in her native Switzerland. In the media frenzy that followed he kept a typically low and classy profile.

FitzGerald, who died of cancer, was based in Britain for most of his life, but will be buried at his childhood home in Co Kildare. He never forgot his roots and six years ago, as guest of the Maynooth Historical Society, made an emotional return to the castle and to nearby Carton House. His daughter Hermione is a professional golfer.


Lord John FitzGerald, racing trainer: born Co Kildare, Ireland 3 March 1952; married 1982 Barbara Zindel (divorced 2013; one daughter, one son); died Newmarket 3 August 2015.