Racing: Titans of the bloodstock world are locked in a battle for supremacy

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The Independent Online

Each autumn, the premises alternatively known as the Temple of Mammon, the Biblical monument to greed and riches, stage the Tattersalls October Sale, Europe's premier auction of yearlings, an occasion when racing's most affluent and powerful gather to spend absurd amounts on unproven young horseflesh.

This year the sales, which begin at 11.30 this morning, occur at a time when conflict has broken out between the two biggest camps in world racing. The previous uneasy truce between John Magnier's Irish Coolmore operation and the Dubaian Maktoum brothers has broken down and this week will provide evidence of the extent of the deterioration.

Sheikh Mohammed has been the instigator. It seems he has grown tired of purchasing yearlings produced by Coolmore and not having his actions reciprocated. This belief has led to the sheikh boycotting all Magnier horses at the first major sales of the season, in Kentucky and Ireland. Now we wait to see if the policy is extended to Newmarket.

The timing of the embargo is not coincidental. This is the time of year when broodmare owners have to choose a mate for their horses. Those who are thinking about using Coolmore stallions now face the prospect that the world's biggest-spending owner will ignore their produce when it comes to market.

There are complex ramifications about the boycott, but a simple squabble underpinning it. The twin empires have been crashing antlers for many years now in search of dominance. Along the way, Magnier and Mohammed may have lost plenty of horse races but they have never got used to losing. They have both become rather used to getting their own way.

Sheikh Mohammed, who does not consider himself to be the bluntest cactus in the desert, would not enjoy the idea of being strategically outmanoeuvred. He is the United Arab Emirates Minister of Defence after all.

Magnier is a private figure who has been in the news recently far too much for his liking. But he enjoys the thought of being beaten even less. First came the argument with Sir Alex Ferguson over the breeding rights of the champion colt Rock Of Gibraltar. Magnier brushed Ferguson's claims aside without turning a hair. Then there was the sale of Manchester United to Malcolm Glazer. The Irishman was impervious to the vitriol of the United fans and came out the financial winner from that one also.

Both sides have intrinsic advantages. Coolmore is the most devastating racehorse business on the planet. Magnier has developed his acumen from the moment he left school, at the age of 15 after his father died, to run the family's cattle and stud in Co Cork. He initially came to wider prominence as adviser to Vincent O'Brien, his training father-in-law, and the flamboyant owner Robert Sangster.

Despite the vast money and glamorous wrapping to his life he remains essentially a horse dealer. The best one around. Yet there is certainly no sense of wealth or joie de vivre from the dark countenance he brings to the racecourse.

The Magnier strategy is this: to buy or breed champion racehorses, have them trained expertly by Aidan O'Brien at the legendary Ballydoyle stable in Co Tipperary and then reap the massive rewards of those which are successful at stud. The mighty Sadler's Wells, multiple champion sire and standing as a stallion at a fee of £250,000, is the best example.

It is the Maktoums' blessing that they have virtually limitless funds. In spite of the brothers' investment of hundreds of millions of pounds in the turf it is said their speculation is equal to only one day's oil production in Dubai.

One thing money cannot buy, though, is expertise and the Maktoums individually, as well as their joint Godolphin operation, continue to lag behind the proficiency of Coolmore.

One thought is that the reason Magnier does not purchase the progeny of Maktoum-bred horses is that he thinks they are not good enough. "The sheikh is totally in the wrong here," one breeding expert says. "There is a far greater level of expertise at Coolmore. There are people who work for the sheikh who would not get a job at Coolmore.

"The sheikh has not made a proper stallion for 20 years. Of course, Coolmore have made their mistakes, but there has always been Sadler's Wells around to bankroll the operation. Whatever the mistakes, he has made up for them."

In addition, there seems to be a blurring in Sheikh Mohammed's mind about whether his racing interests are a plaything or an international business. He oscillates between telling an audience in the Godolphin museum that racing is not a great part of his life, to saying that Godolphin is the greatest global billboard for his country. He appears quite serious about it at the moment.

It has not been a particularly mellow autumn for the sheikh. His frustration has manifested itself in a touch of retail therapy, principally at the world's foremost dispersal of young horses, last month's September Yearling Sale at Lexington, Kentucky.

Two huge family planes, including the sheikh's own customised 747, flew into Bluegrass Airport across the road from the Keeneland Sales complex: as welcome as transport carriers ferrying aid to a starving nation. Maktoums mean money.

It was the first time since the early 1990s that the three main racing brothers - Sheikhs Maktoum, Hamdan and Mohammed - had all attended and they were not there to spectate.

While Coolmore may have the edge in slickness, Team Dubai possess the deepest pockets. They aimed to make it show. The twin empires duelled for a dark bay colt, a handsome son of the world's most valuable sire, Storm Cat, but a horse which could not be guaranteed to raise a trot. Sheikh Mohammed determined to have him and came up with $9.7m (£5.5m), the third highest figure for a yearling at auction.

The big two also bought the top two. In 1985 Coolmore paid $13.1m for Seattle Dancer, whose racing career lasted 10 weeks and accrued just £111,303 in prize-money. In comparison to Snaafi Dancer he was a bargain.

Sheikh Mohammed's $10.2m purchase of 1985 owned fabulous looks and genes, but slow legs. He never ran and any residual value he had as a breeding animal disappeared when he was found to be infertile.

Still, the Maktoums ploughed in at Keeneland this time, spending $60m, but nothing on horses sired by Coolmore stallions.

When the sales caravan moved on to Goffs at Kill, in Co Kildare, the Maktoums descended from the heavens again, this time in helicopters, one blue and one green, landing on the verge separating the car park from the N7. But Sheikh Mohammed and his wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, markedly limited their inspections to non-Coolmore produce.

When the bidding started, Sheikh Hamdan said he would not be buying Coolmore horses, while Sheikh Mohammed said the situation was "a private matter". There was, nevertheless, time for a spot of oneupmanship when a colt by Kingmambo, an stallion from an outside camp, was led into the ring.

Magnier, in his usual location at the foot of the stairs, got stuck in, but was ultimately eclipsed by Sheikh Hamdan on the opposite side of the ring. The object of their joint desire made €1.8m (£1.27m), the highest price at Kill for four years.

There is probably no need for those at Tattersalls to look skywards this morning. Sheikh Mohammed and his family are unlikely visitors to the sales because of Ramadan. Yet there will be palms pressed together and faces pointing upwards in expectation of the Maktoums bidding via the bloodstock agent John Ferguson.

"Hopefully, very little will change," Jimmy George, the Tattersalls marketing manager, said. "The big sales in North America and in Ireland have gone very well, so if there is an issue, this stand-off, it doesn't seem to be impacting on the sales. We are cautiously optimistic."

It was inspection day at Park Paddocks yesterday. Young horses were being assessed and the main ring was being dressed for the anticipated cascade of pounds, dollars and various other currencies displayed on the electronic transaction board.

The wooden acorns from which the rope hangs in front of horses going into the ring had been polished. There was an echo around the eau-de-Nil walls and a neat circle of straw had been laid in the middle of the ring. It was still and grey outside too. For so many there was the hope that this was the calm before a financial storm.

Sheikh Mohammed

* AGE 56

* BACKGROUND Third son of the ruler of Dubai. Education completed at officer college in England

* FAMILY Several wives and many children. Most recently married to Princess Haya of Jordan

* POLITICAL HONOUR UAE defence minister * OWNS Dalham Hall Stud, Newmarket, flagship of worldwide empire * MAIN STABLE Godolphin, Newmarket Suffolk, England

* MAIN TRAINER Saeed bin Suroor

* RETAINED JOCKEY Frankie Dettori

* TOP HORSE IN TRAINING Dubawi (winner, Irish 2,000 Guineas, Prix Jacques le Marois) * TOP STALLIONS AT STUD Cape Cross, Fantastic Light, Red Ransom, Singspiel * WEALTH £5.7bn (estimate)

John Magnier

* AGE 57

* BACKGROUND Son of a cattle farmer and horse breeder. Left school aged 15

* FAMILY Married to Susan, daughter of outstanding racehorse trainer Vincent O'Brien. Two children

* POLITICAL HONOUR Former senator in Ireland's upper chamber * OWNS Coolmore Stud and its branches in United States and Australia * MAIN STABLE Ballydoyle, Rosegreen, Co Tipperary, Ireland

* MAIN TRAINER Aidan O'Brien


* TOP HORSE IN TRAINING Hurricane Run (winner, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe) * TOP STALLION AT STUD Sadler's Wells (champion sire 14 times) * WEALTH £500m (estimate)