Racing: Dubawi on a mission to fulfil the dream of a desert kingdom's ruler

Sheikh Mohammed tells Richard Edmondson of his ceaseless search for a successor to an awesome, ill-fated champion
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Sheikh Mohammed, the world's leading owner of thoroughbreds, has seen a few races in his time, but nothing has compared emotionally with what he will feel in this afternoon's Derby.

Sheikh Mohammed, the world's leading owner of thoroughbreds, has seen a few races in his time, but nothing has compared emotionally with what he will feel in this afternoon's Derby.

Dubawi is the name of the colt invested with the Dubaian's high passion, a son of the horse the Sheikh invested with near mystical properties, the mighty Dubai Millennium.

The fervour comes because there is only one shot at this. Dubai Millennium, the world champion of 2000, died after a single year at stud. Dubawi is the luminary of his only crop.

"He has the same eyes and head as his sire," Sheikh Mohammed said yesterday. "He is a very good horse, but I'm not sure he is Dubai Millennium. He was something out of this world. I think of him always. He was a friend. But this is very special for me, the only chance to win the Derby with a son of Dubai Millennium."

It is also special as the Godolphin team which Sheikh Mohammed invented has yet to see its royal blue colours win a Blue Riband. All the other Classics have been mopped up. It would be the final glory for the team established a decade ago to winter horses in the Emirates and then explode around the world from its Newmarket summer base.

"There have been ups and downs, but, in the last 10 years, we have enjoyed every minute of it," Sheikh Mohammed said. "The whole thing is excitement. In 10 years' time Godolphin will be the same but better quality."

Sheikh Mohammed is the third of the Maktoum brothers, Dubai's ruling family, but his siblings soon recognised that among them he was the chosen one. This estimation did not damage his self-confidence. One by-product is that the crown prince clearly considers himself an Oscar Wilde of the dunes. He readily comes out with maxims which would not be out of place at the bottom of an American corporate photograph.

"In the race for excellence there is no finishing line," he has told us. The dream must go on." Another favourite is: "Stagnation means regression, therefore you should strive to develop."

Godolphin is a much developed beast since Balanchine gave them their first Classic success in the Oaks of 1994. This season the skies turned dark as they flew in 340 horses to be stationed at the Newmarket premises of Godolphin Stables, Moulton Paddocks and Highfield Stables.

It is a massive investment and one which has benefited many in these islands, yet, to this day, those in Godolphin still sense that British racing does not exactly put the kettle on when they return from a winter in the desert.

Change comes very slowly on the turf and preparing horses in Dubai to run in Europe and around the world was initially considered an exercise in the bizarre by traditionalists. "What are the horses going to eat?" one of his trainers asked Sheikh Mohammed at the operation's outset. "Sand?"

Soon the Sheikh would be kicking it in their faces. He grew disenchanted with his trainers, whom he suspected did not respect his aptitude with horses as much as they respected his dirhams.

When Sheikh Mohammed was a child in the 1950s, Dubai was little more than flat-topped houses round the Gulf water's edge, camels brought dates and and charcoal to the souq, and the businessmen were largely limited to the divers who put clips on their noses before descending for pearls.

Almost all of what is modern Dubai was still desert and the old rules still applied. You would feed your horse before your children and he would be a regular fixture in the tent. It was the same with other tools of hunting, the dog and the falcon.

While Sheikh Mohammed now lives in the most riotous luxury, he believes himself to have been shaped by the time his father sent him to survive in the desert. He likes to think he knows horses as much as any man.

How to choose them, how to train them and how to ride them. As John Gosden, one of his most trusted trainers once said, if the Sheikh could do 8st 7lb, Frankie Dettori would be out of a job.

In his dreams, the horse that Sheikh Mohammed does ride is Dubai Millennium. The colt he refers to as "the beautiful horse" was originally named Yaazer, but his owner wanted something more portentous after news of the young animal's awesome gallops work filtered through. It was simple destiny, the Sheikh thought, when Dubai Millennium won the richest race in the world, his own race, the 2000 Dubai World Cup.

"He was dish faced, more like an Arab face, and beautiful eyes," the Sheikh said. "I fell in love with him because of the way he looked and the way he worked. It was not only the way he moved, but his unfinished body. If he worked like that with a frame that was not yet filled out, what would he do when he was mature? When he was in Dubai, I saw him every day, every night.

"Dubai Millennium was different to ride from any other horse. He was clever. When a jockey jumped on he said, 'leave me alone,' and you must let him go, not do anything, give him the rein, and his natural speed was too much for other horses. He was not putting in that much effort, while others horses couldn't last trying to keep up, and he just kept going."

Dubai Millennium won the Prince Of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot, also in 2000, prompting Sheikh Mohammed to say: "I have never seen nor owned a horse like him. The way he trains, the way he looks. He is quite outstanding. There is no horse like this horse."

It was an experience for his owner, an experience for his rider. "I was scared of riding him," Frankie Dettori said. "Not because he was dangerous but because he was so powerful. He was like a rhino. It was like putting a bridle on a rhino and trying to control him. If he wanted to run, you couldn't stop him."

Then, though, it was all over. Dubai Millennium broke a hind leg on the gallops and the Sheikh stayed with the horse throughout a life-saving operation. The following April not even his owner could save him. The by-now stallion contracted acute grass sickness and died despite three operations to save him.

"Dubai Millennium was a very special horse for me, for us, for everybody," the Sheikh said. "You could see his big heart in his eyes. You could see the wind blow between his ears when he ran. He was something different. He could talk to you.

"I am a Muslim and I believe in God and what he does. Dubai Millennium was a great horse. It has taken us a long time to come across a great horse like that. Of course we are very sad, but we believe in God and it makes us determined to find another one. Now me and my team must try to find another one."

It may be that time has already come and in the one race that Dubai Millennium met defeat. Dubawi has to transport Frankie Dettori in the 226th Derby, but, much more than that, he carries beautiful memories and the possibility of becoming the next mystical horse.

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