Racing: The quiet Arab who marshals Godolphin's equine battalions

Saeed bin Suroor, who once trained out of a converted garage but now runs the mighty Godolphin string at Newmarket, talks to <i><b>Richard Edmondson </b></i>
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was on the perfect lawns outside the perfect racehorse yard that is the Godolphin stables on Newmarket's Bury Road. Sheikh Mohammed, the owner of these luxurious premises and so much more, stood in the morning sunlight and addressed a press corps about his Derby runners.

It was on the perfect lawns outside the perfect racehorse yard that is the Godolphin stables on Newmarket's Bury Road. Sheikh Mohammed, the owner of these luxurious premises and so much more, stood in the morning sunlight and addressed a press corps about his Derby runners.

Behind the crown prince of Dubai, a selection of some of the most valuable horses on the planet were being washed down. His horses. On the fringes was Princess Haya, the pretty 30-year-old daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, the spanking new wife of the Sheikh. Then came the question.

"Sir," and, from that point, you knew it was not to be a Torquemada interview, "you seem to be very relaxed. Why is that?" Sheikh Mohammed looked around a little and did not have to wonder why. Saeed bin Suroor, the Sheikh's trainer of the vast Godolphin battalions, smiled. He likes England and he likes to think of England as vaguely ridiculous.

"The first time I came here I had no friends, just friends on the telephone. Now I have hundreds and thousands of friends here," Bin Suroor says. "This is my home. I was born in the desert, so I like the rain. I like England because it is so different from Dubai. It rains on the gallops in the mornings and there is frost on the ground. And this is summer time. I love the weather here and I love the country."

Bin Suroor has been coming to this country for a decade now, marshalling the most powerful equine troops in existence. Godolphin have already compiled well over 100 Group One victories and will attempt to add a fifth King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes to the glittering mound at Ascot this afternoon.

It is quite something when you recognise that Bin Suroor himself came from a place which makes obscurity look like a capital city. A former policeman, the 37-year-old cultivated an interest in Arab horses by training out of a converted garage. It was very much a small deal.

Yet when Hilal Ibrahim stepped aside after just one season at the head of Godolphin, it was to Bin Suroor that the call was issued. He was to leave the garage and lead the most ferocious firepower on the turf.

It all seemed so unlikely that the sneers began early on. Bin Suroor was little more than a puppet the snipers said, not so much lord of this particular manor as much as the figure emerging with a soda siphon on the silver tray. It was an insinuation he took several years to erase. He did so with a grace which has made him a hugely popular figure among the British press population.

"I have my limitations before I come here, but now it is better," he says. "I don't really care if people say those bad things. Maybe it was just being jealous. I know my job and I have dozens of people behind me. Ever since I started I have done my best for the company. I am happy in my work."

It is perhaps the pompous around him that make Bin Suroor appear such a man of humility among leading trainers. When he arrives at the racecourse, each time so well trimmed it seems he must have had a morning appointment at the salon, he has a handshake for everyone. "Hello, my friend. How are you?"

The vision of Bin Suroor in one of his trademark dark suits is now so firm that it is slightly incongruous to see him wearing his other clothes, the flowing dish-dash. He spends half a year in his homeland over the winter, the rest of the time based in Newmarket and traversing the globe.

The job specification changed this year when Sheikh Mohammed brought his two-year-olds within the Godolphin umbrella. It had been raining in that department for several years, including the disastrous attempt to pitch camp under David Loder at Evry racecourse near Paris, but now it is turning round.

Godolphin, the champion team in 1996, 1998 and 1999, are once again at the top of the table in Britain with 43 winners, £2m in prizemoney and a strike-rate of around 24 per cent. It has not been achieved through sloth. "It is different this year with all the horses," Bin Suroor says. "In the past we had only around 60 horses, some time as low as 20, but now we have 260. This year we decided to keep everything for ourselves and we had programmes for all these horses even before we left Dubai.

"It is not easy. It is always busy. I watch third lot and then it is 45 minutes to change before racing in the afternoon and then racing in the evening. There is no time. It is hard but it is my job. You have to be tough.

"My life is different from when I started. You work seven days a week. I have had no holiday for some years now. Maybe two days after the Melbourne Cup once. It is six months in Dubai and six months in England, and it is my whole life. But, when you are happy in your work, it is like a holiday all the time. It is good now with good horses and good teamwork."

The team is led, of course, by Sheikh Mohammed, the bard of the dunes with an aphorism for every occasion. "In the race for excellence, there is no finishing line," he tells his employees, and is not averse either to using "no barrier can withstand strength of purpose".

Most of the talking, though, is done by the clean-cut Simon Crisford, the Godolphin racing manager, and, in the bad old days, a member of the Fourth Estate himself. When Bin Suroor's hurried English has run its course, it is Crisford who conducts the bulk of post-race press conferences.

"We have worked together closely for years now, since day one, and Saeed is not just a colleague but a great friend," Crisford says. "A brief characterisation of him would be that Saeed is much more a giver than a taker. He always puts other people before himself and is generous of spirit. What I'm trying to say I think is that he's simply a decent bloke. We have all helped him and given him encouragement along the way, but, ultimately, he has done it all himself."

The most overt member of the company, and this is a one-horse race, remains Frankie Dettori, who provides not only top jockeyship but the publicity flourish which does not come naturally to the Dubaians. For it must be remembered that Godolphin was conceived not just as a racing entity but also a flagship for Emirates excellence around the planet. No jockey alive sells himself, his sport and those around him better than Dettori.

It is no coincidence that Godolphin's upsurge this season has been accompanied by a refreshed Italian. While the veneer may have suggested otherwise, it has taken Dettori many years to distance the memory of the light aircraft crash which almost took his life in June of 2000.

The sporting manifestation of this was that Dettori retreated and rode largely at only the major meetings. Last season, the first serious wave of criticism of his career washed over the jockey. There was questioning of Dettori's commitment, his contribution to the Godolphin cause.

That hurt the jockey and he has made sure there would be no ground in which such censure could flourish again. "When I was home in January I could tell from the way he was talking that he was going to be here and there at every meeting," Bin Suroor says. "He was a little quiet before and he would ride only at the big meetings, but now he is Frankie again. He rides four or five winners a day and he is good on all types of horses. This year he is keen and he is a really happy person."

The happy person is not a rare species in camp Godolphin this season. As they thrive, the only legitimate challenger to European hegemony, the Ballydoyle and Coolmore axis, is enduring a fallow season.

Meanwhile, those behind the Royal blue colours have mopped up six winners at Royal Ascot, sent out Rule Of Law to finish second to North Light in the Derby and also welcomed back Refuse To Bend from Eclipse Stakes success. Their trainer has smiled, but then he did that when the fates were in a different mood.

Now it is time for the King George and a race for which Godolphin was designed, a contest recognised around the world. "You have the Derby and you have the Irish Derby, races which tell you which are the top three-year-olds," Bin Suroor says. "And then you have the King George, when all the best horses in Europe come to run in this one race. We need to win races like this."

Lunar Sovereign will set the pace for the Godolphin team this afternoon and more credible challengers are Sulamani, if the ground remains easy enough to let the ex-French horse take his chance, and, perhaps most appropriate, the hot favourite Doyen. That is what his trainer has become in world racing.

It would most justifiable, but far too grandiose for one of his nature, for Saeed bin Suroor to borrow another of Sheikh Mohammed's maxims, the one that reads "one of life's greatest pleasures is doing what others think you cannot do".

The life and times of Saeed Bin Suroor

Born: 10 October 1967.

Place of birth: Dubai.

Previous occupation: Policeman. Took out his first training licence in 1994. Spends the winter at the Al Quoz stables in Dubai and then travels to Britain in the spring to train for Godolphin at the Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket.

Champion trainer: 1996, 1998, 1999.

Classic wins in Britain: 1,000 Guineas - Cape Verdi 1998; Kazzia 2002.

2,000 Guineas - Mark Of Esteem 1996; Island Sands 1999.

Derby - Lammtarra 1995.

Oaks - Moonshell 1995; Kazzia 2002.

St Leger - Classic Cliche 1995; Nedawi 1998; Mutafaweq 1999.

Top trainer at Royal Ascot in 1999 (three winners), 1997 (three winners), 1996 (three winners) and again this year with six winners.

Best horse trained: Dubai Millennium, the 2000 Prince of Wales' Stakes winner, who had to be retired to stud after an injury and then died from colic. "He was a star since he came to us - the best horse in the stable as a three-year-old. The place is empty without him. He covered 80 mares - I hope from this fold there is some star."

Godolphin's King George Victors can Doyen make it five?

1995 King George Winner - Lammtarra

Lammtarra ran only four times, but within his timeframe there was a Seabiscuit level of drama. His original trainer, Alex Scott, was shot dead at his Newmarket yard by a member of stable staff. Lammtarra himself almost died through illness at the end of his two-year-old career and was still a sick horse six weeks before a Derby he won in record time. Sheikh Mohammed said later he received a premonition not only that the colt would survive, but also that he would become the first Blue Riband winner to have wintered in Dubai. Lammtarra went on to win the King George and added the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, thus completing a treble last achieved by Mill Reef in 1971.

1997 King George Winner - Swain

Swain's early career seemed to characterise him as a "nearly horse", a colt of unimpeachable courage but one just below the highest calibre. The King George changed all that. The 1997 running, in the rating technical sense, was about the best race we have ever seen. The posters had billed it as a racing Armageddon between Helissio, Singspiel and Pilsudski, but when the smoke cleared the last horse standing was a 16-1 shot. Just as he won when he should have lost, Swain was also able to affect the reverse. Post Ascot, he contrived to get himself beaten in a Listed race at Newbury and was then strangely down the field in the Arc. It was almost as if he was lulling us.

2004 King George Contender - Doyen

Like Swain, Doyen's original tutor was André Fabre, who did not overcook the young Sadler's Wells colt in his ranks. Doyen ran just once at two and five times last term, on each occasion being asked to accomplish a little more. His winning run last season came to a close when he ran into the brilliant Dalakhani, first in the Prix Niel and then the Arc. Doyen, though, impressed as the best long-term project around. In a roughhouse of a Coronation Cup at Epsom last month the colt was second to Warrsan, but he subsequently made sure nothing could bother him in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot, beating High Accolade by six lengths while breaking Stanerra's 21-year-old course record.

1998 King George Winner - Swain

Going into the King George as a six-year-old, Swain was fourth favourite behind High-Rise, the Derby winner, Royal Anthem and Silver Patriarch and coming out he was the oldest horse to win the race, the first since Dahlia to do so twice. The legend was reinforced in the Irish Champion Stakes and then came his last race. Swain should probably have won the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, the biggest race outside the Triple Crown in America, but he was bizarrely piloted by Frankie Dettori, beaten halfway across the track by a sustained left-handed drive. That ride remains in infamy Stateside. Swain himself is more kindly remembered.

1999 King George Winner - Daylami

Dettori's American redemption came suitably enough on a fairytale horse, the light grey Daylami, another who will be remembered for his final competitive appearance. Gulfstream Park in Florida is hell for European-trained horses both in terms of heat and result. A total of 34 had tried and lost at a Breeders' Cup meeting before Daylami stepped into the oven for the 1999 running of the Turf. In the event, it was the five-year-old who left the scorch marks, sending Dettori into breastbeating paroxysms. Daylami was fourth to stablemate Swain in the 1998 King George. The next year saw a sub-standard King George, but not a sub-standard performance. Daylami thrashed Nedawi by five lengths.

Comments