Battle for the crown in race fit for kings

Ascot plays host to showdown of the season as Irish dynasty threatens to usurp Dubai operation as turf's superpower
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The Independent Online

It is possible to view the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the high summer racing championship which will be run over Ascot's opulent acres tomorrow afternoon, as just another valuable horse race. Possible, but naive. The King George is a symbol for the turf in the modern era, an Armageddon for the two biggest forces in world racing.

Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation and the joint monoliths of Ballydoyle and Coolmore in Ireland have little time for this head-to-head depiction of the sport. They point out that there are others on the field on play, in much the same way as King Kong and Godzilla might have indicated that fleeing citizens had some meaningful role as they crashed through the apartment blocks and offices of New York.

As far as tomorrow is concerned we are talking Fantastic Light for Dubai versus Galileo for Coolmore. The Montagues versus the Capulets.

Fantastic Light is the relative veteran of the contest, a horse who became a global champion of sorts last season when he captured the Emirates World Series. This time around he is even better. And he has to be for in Galileo he faces an unbeaten horse from a new generation, a dual Derby winner and possibly one of the greatest horses of recent times.

It is the five-year-old's task to remove a cut and bloodied Godolphin from the ropes and, at the same time, knock out the big hitter from their opponents. Team Ireland have collected six European Classics in the first half of the season, at the same time witnessing the glorious emergence of Galileo. Godolphin have had no Classic victories this year since Wednesday, when Noverre was disqualified from the Poule' d'Essai des Poulains (the French 2,000 Guineas) following the discovery of a banned substance in his body.

The fightback from the horses trained by Saeed bin Suroor needs to start now and nothing would hurt Coolmore futher than the knowledge that their colt is just the ruler of his generation rather than the all-around champion. To beat him would put Fantastic Light on a plane occupied by only the outstanding few.

It is a tribute to Galileo, however, that he is already being discussed as one of the best thoroughbreds to march out of Ballydoyle. It is an immensely difficult echelon into which to break.

Since Vincent O'Brien bought this tranche of land in Co Tipperary for £17,000 in 1951, Ballydoyle has come to be known as the world's foremost private training establishment. The premises lie under the gaze of the Slievenamon mountain, from which, legend has it, ancient kings used to take as their brides the women that ran swiftest from the valley to the peak. Speed, in this area, has always been sacrosanct.

Vincent won 44 European Classics, including six Derbys, in an understated fashion. And today we have the same surname, the same style, with Aidan O'Brien (no relation). It is the latter's quest to carry on the rich tradition established by such as Nijinsky, Golden Fleece and El Gran Senor.

The glue between these generations is John Magnier, Vincent O'Brien's son-in-law after marriage to Susan, and now the owner of the Ballydoyle stables and Coolmore stud. It is important to view these sites, 10 miles apart, as twin capitals. They are territories committed to the breeding, rearing and selling of horseflesh.

Of the two chieftains, Magnier is more the businessman. Last week, in conjunction with another notable figure from the Irish turf, JP McManus, he bought Manchester United shares reportedly valued at £28m.

Sheikh Mohammed is less commercially driven. His is more a cultural affinity with the horse and he has as an ideal a kind of immortality in his homeland. Four decades ago, Dubai was little more than a tiny pearling and fishing village, but progress was first achieved by Sheikh Mohammed's father, Sheikh Rashid, and now by the Crown Prince himself. He plans his achievements to be written in more than the sands of his kingdom.

The Sheikh and his Maktoum brothers have poured fortunes into this sport, with their individual strings, the inception of the Godolphin team which winters horses in the Emirates and, also, the instigation of the Dubai World Cup meeting.

These, the Maktoums hope, have all been loss leaders. The great aspiration is that the marvellously lavish World Cup and the globally successful Godolphin enterprise can showcase Dubai's excellence before the oil runs out in about 20 years' time. Already, the import and export business is the nation's largest contributor.

Sheikh Mohammed and Magnier may have different motives, but both are searching for domination and so find the other in the way. Away from the track this manifests itself most greatly at the yearling sales, where the two great stags battle for supremacy.

Sheikh Mohammed has already seen off one Ballydoyle money man in Robert Sangster and now he aims to do the same to Michael Tabor, who jointly owns many of the best horses in the rival yard with Sue Magnier.

The rutting season began at the Keeneland July Sale in Kentucky last week. Demi O'Byrne, for Coolmore, bought six lots for $9.675m (£6.8m), including three millionaires and top lot at the sale, a $4m son of Saint Ballado. That was as nothing though compared with John Ferguson and David Loder on behalf of Godolphin. They bought nine lots for $16.325m, including seven millionaires.

For Godolphin and Coolmore are as much about the future as the present, and the foundation stones ensure their private hand-to-hand combat will continue for many years. The yearling speculation is about finding both talented runners and those to continue the dynasty in the breeding shed.

Sheikh Mohammed thought he had found his perfect model with Dubai Millennium, the extravagantly gifted colt who was tipped to make as big an impact at stud as he had on the racecourse. The great colt perished from grass sickness earlier this year though, with Sheikh Mohammed himself allegedly at the ailing beast's side.

Magnier has possession of the equine printing press at the moment in the shape of Sadler's Wells, the most successful stallion we have ever known. He services upwards of 100 mares a season at around IR£200,000 a time. The old boy may be 20 with whiskers around his big, white face and a tummy that has not seen sit-ups for a while, but this does not seem to spoil his chances with the ladies.

This is the procreative future in store for Galileo and Fantastic Light tomorrow as they negotiate a mile and half of the Queen's land in around 150 seconds. It might just look like another horse race to some in the audience, but for others it is about ego, one-upmanship and the right to the title as the most influential figures in world racing.

Coolmore v Godolphin


John Magnier remains in the background at the racecourse behind the visible signs of his wife, Susan, and the businessman, Michael Tabor, who has replaced Robert Sangster as the latest ally behind Ballydoyle, Europe's top training complex. Tabor, a former bookie, was warned off racecourses in 1970 for allegedly making payments to jockeys. The former trainee hairdresser now has property in Monaco, a £20m yacht and is said to be worth £400m.

Sheikh Mohammed is partially deaf following his military days. He is the third eldest, but the most powerful, of the four Maktoum brothers which rule Dubai. Was originally the multiple champion owner in Britain in his own right, but then grew weary with many of his trainers. Since 1994 the Sheikh has been dedicated to Godolphin and the idea of wintering horses in Dubai before returning them to the pastures of England and campaigning around the globe.


Like Bin Suroor, Aidan O'Brien is a quiet, unassuming and approachable character. Aged 31, a former champion amateur rider over jumps and multiple champion jumps trainer, both in Ireland. Also the champion Flat trainer. Last year prepared Giant's Causeway to be the first horse since Nijinsky to win five Group One races in succession. A non-smoking, teetotaller, he likes to spend his holidays at home with the horses at Ballydoyle.

Saeed Bin Suroor, a former policeman, who started out training in Dubai from a converted garage. He took over at Godolphin in April 1995, and soon trained Lammtarra to a unique treble in the Derby, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. The winner of three British trainers' championships. Continually labours under the allegation that he is a peripheral figure at Godolphin, but says he likes coming to Britain for the rain.


Michael Kinane will not discover until this morning if he is free to ride Galileo. He is appealing against a careless riding ban imposed on him at Leopardstown. Fellow Irishman Johnny Murtagh is waiting to deputise. Kinane, 42, is the reigning champion, having been successful on Montjeu 12 months ago. An unsentimental technician, he has also won the race on Belmez and King's Theatre. An extra frisson in his exchanges with Sheikh Mohammed is the fact he once turned down an offer to ride as retained jockey for the Arab owner.

Frankie Dettori, the Italian 30-year-old, has coloured each Group One victory by Godolphin with his trademark flying dismount. By a furlong the most charismatic rider active in the world today, possessing an extrovert nature which dovetails well with the more reticent members of his team. A former British champion, he now concentrates on quality rather than quantity. Prefers to spend more time with his family since surviving a light aircraft crash 14 months ago.


Apart from the vast Coolmore operation in Ireland, Magnier has the Ashford Stud in Kentucky, as well as Coolmore Australia in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. The last-named is home to many of Coolmore's shuttle stallions, which alternate between the hemispheres for two breeding seasons a year. In Ireland, Sadler's Wells (left) is the big daddy of them all, residing in the same Coolmore yard as Giant's Causeway and his son and heir, Montjeu.

The Maktoum family has bought some of the most valuable stud acreage in Britain, Ireland and the United States. Sheikh Mohammed owns eight studs alone in Newmarket, of which Dalham Hall is the sprawling fulcrum. The Kildangan Stud in Co Kildare is the other flagship. Under the Darley Stud banner he also has stallions in France, Germany, and the Gainsborough Farm in Kentucky. Machiavellian (right) is currently Dalham Hall's leading sire.

Supporting casts

Demi O'Byrne, the vet and agent, has bought horses for Tabor since 1995. Most of the Coolmore inmates are named by Sue Magnier (left), many of them after composers, artists and philosophers. The assistant trainer is Tommy Murphy, a link to the times of Vincent O'Brien as a man who used to ride all the top horses on the gallops and some of them at the racecourse. Galileo has had plenty of back-up on the racecourse this year from fellow Group One winners Black Minnaloushe, Imagine and Mozart.

Simon Crisford (right) became the racing manager to Godolphin on the realisation that the inability of Hilal Ibrahim, the team's original trainer, to speak English would be an insurmountable problem. Crisford works closely with Bin Suroor and the assistant trainer Tom Albertrani, the former assistant to Bill Mott at the time the American had the great Cigar in his possession. Only Tobougg and Noverre have proved themselves among Godolphin's Classic crop this year, while Mutafaweq is an able older horse.