Racing: Aga's royal line restored to the throne

One of the turf's most powerful dynasties swept back to power at Royal Ascot and has a strong contender for the Irish Derby this Sunday
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most potent messages from Royal Ascot last week may well be reinforced at the Curragh on Sunday. After Sendawar in the St James's Palace Stakes and Enzeli in the Gold Cup, perhaps Daliapour can follow up in the Irish Derby. The Aga Khan is back playing in the big league and his high-rolling rivals will forget it at their peril.

There was no disguising the absolute pleasure and satisfaction that those two Ascot victories gave to the man on the receiving end, though perhaps the emotions were stirred for differing reasons. Sendawar was professional, if you like: the Aga Khan's first Group One winner in Britain since his self-imposed exile from these shores in the wake of the Aliysa affair 10 years ago, and the establishment of the colt's status as Europe's best miler to boot.

Enzeli was more personal. The four-year-old carried his second colours, the old chocolate and green hoops inherited from his grandfather and father, Prince Aly Khan. The last time those silks were successful in the Gold Cup was 39 years before, when Sheshoon won the stayers' crown just six weeks after the untimely death of Prince Aly in a car crash. His son, who has a well-developed sense of history, was not unappreciative of the poignancy.

It may be, too, that Enzeli will ultimately give him greater memories to cherish. The two-and-a-half-mile Gold Cup is no longer a fashionable proving ground of a top-class horse, but the powers of acceleration displayed by this colt as he demolished a record-sized and high-quality field are likely to stand him in good stead as the season unfolds.

The immediate post-race reaction was that Enzeli, trained in Ireland by John Oxx and clearly improving hand over fist, should carry on plying his trade in stayers' races. But a day later the Aga Khan had shifted his ground slightly. "The way he quickened," he said, "is the hallmark of a good horse. And I would certainly not rule out a drop back in distance at some time in the future."

After the death of his father, it took the young man, who was then only 23, some time to decide whether he wanted to pick up the reins of the family's bloodstock empire. He had three years earlier inherited the mantle of spiritual leader of the Ismail Muslims from his grandfather, the previous Aga Khan, and knew very little of racing or breeding.

Once he made the decision, he faced an uphill battle to maintain the tradition at the levels of excellence established by the old Aga, who had horses in training in Britain and whose successes included five Derbys. Two sets of death duties had led to a necessary erosion of both quality and quantity among the breeding stock and it took 10 years for the operation to bottom out.

The Aga Khan was starting from a point of knowledge that he has described as sub-zero. But he applied sound business practices and the mind of a chess player to the venture and horses like Zeddaan and his son Kalamoun, a top-class miler in 1973, were the harbingers of a successful opening gambit. He then switched from defence to attack and made two important captures with the acquisition of nearly 200 head of stock from two leading French breeders, the late Madame Dupre and the bankrupt textile tycoon Marcel Boussac.

The sound theories behind his game-plan were that firstly, above a certain number, probability, not luck comes into play; and secondly, buying a package of someone else's wisdom was a more likely route to success than plucking individuals, however choicely bred, from an auction-sale catalogue.

Both Enzeli, the Aga Khan's 56th Group One winner, and Daliapour are descended from the Boussac-bred mare Tourzima, three-greats grandmother of the former and four-greats of the latter.

Further expansion across the board in the Seventies came with the sale of top-class 10-furlong horse Blushing Groom to stand at stud in Kentucky, giving a foothold in the US market, and the return of the name Aga Khan as an owner in Britain, with associated commercial opportunities. In 1981, exactly 60 years after his grandfather came into the game, he won his first Derby with his greatest champion, Shergar. Two more, Shahrastani and Kahyasi followed within six seasons.

The Aga Khan, regarded as a living god by his followers, does not find bending the knee easy and withdrew his interests from Britain on a point of principle when he was on a roll. Clearly, his breeding empire, based in France and Ireland, has not stood still during the Nineties; horses like Kartajana, Shemaka, Ashkalani, Valanour, Daylami, three successive Diane winners in Vereva, Zainta and Daryaba 11 days ago, and Enzeli's half-sisters Ebadiyla and Edabiya are testament to that.

As an owner-breeder his success is often based on the fact that he is not constrained by having to follow fashion. Although Daliapour is by the champion sire Sadler's Wells, Enzeli is by the under-patronised Kahyasi and Sendawar by the equally unfashionable Priolo. But from a commercial point of view his operation needs the prestige that success in Britain can still bestow just as much as the domestic racing scene and rivalries at the top level need the presence of his horses.