Racing: Assured to steady Sheikh: Paul Hayward on the omens offered by the family entertainment at Doncaster today

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The Independent Online
The owner of the favourite for this afternoon's May Hill Stakes on the opening day of Doncaster's St Leger meeting is currently not the greatest fan of British racing, though he remains its largest patron. The unmistakable question, in respect of Arab involvement in the industry here, is: how long have we got?

If Self Assured wins the May Hill Stakes then Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai's bank balance will murmur for a nanosecond as the first place prize-money hums its way through the banking system. But anybody who saw the world's most prominent racehorse owner interviewed on Panorama earlier this week will know that it is going to take some kind of miracle for his patience to last the decade.

That the Sheikh agreed to speak at all is a measure of his concern. That he should suspend his low profile by talking in such stark terms is the most forceful confirmation yet that the sport in this country is a gilded house of cards. If the Arabs go, the whole thing goes. Make no mistake about that.

Six of the 12 contestants in the May Hill Stakes are Middle-Eastern owned. In the Park Hill Stakes the proportion is eight out of 12. This is an entirely typical picture, bemoaned only by xenophobes and those who have been knocked off their perches by superior purchasing power. If Arab investment has had a harmful legacy it has been in the distortion of bloodstock prices, but even that seems a small price to pay for having the best bred and most expensively bought horses trained in Britain.

Until now. This is what Sheikh Mohammed told Panorama: 'Last year and this year we are racing more in France than before, because I think it's good in France for foreigners,' he said, referring, most obviously, to the higher prize-money across the Channel. 'If you don't have good racing and good prize-money the good horses don't come, and I think they will be heading to other places.'

The problem, as the Sheikh sees it, is that the return from off- course betting (about one per cent of turnover) is too low, hence the underfunding that Monday's programme sensibly concentrated on. 'I think there is a lot of money going out of racing and very little coming back,' he said.

In truth, Sheikh Mohammed's return on his outlay has not been as high as he might have expected; his operation has not produced a flow of champions to justify the sheer scale of the investment. This season he is leading owner again, but his collection of domestic prize-money amounts to only pounds 1.2m (the price of one top yearling at the Keeneland sales), while his biggest single earner is Opera House, who is some way below top class.

If he doubts his ability to win with Self Assured (4.10) the Sheikh ought to consider that Henry Cecil, the filly's trainer, has won seven of the 11 runnings of the May Hill Stakes, and could make a good case for having it staged on his own gallops to save on petrol. As is so often the case, Sheikh Mohammed may encounter most resistance from his elder brother, Hamdan, whose Katiba has shown promise in two victories.

It has been a momentous few years for Doncaster racecourse: subsidence on the track in 1989, the doping scandal a year later, and, at the end of July, Britain's first Sunday race meeting, which attracted as many people as there are likely to be at the St Leger on Saturday. It is only appropriate that on land vested to the town by Henry VIII there should be all manner of controversies.

The legal disputes which ensued from those falls (owing to holes opening up in the turf) in the 1989 Portland Handicap remain unresolved, though a preliminary court hearing has been set aside for Friday. The jockeys Paul Cook and Ian Johnson never rode again after being hospitalised that day, though while they failed to overcome their injuries sufficiently to make a return, Doncaster has made a striking recovery under a progressive management team.

Almost as difficult as dispensing justice for Cook and Johnson is determining which of the 22 runners will poke its nasal hair in front when it matters. Taufan Blu (next best 2.35) has as good a chance as any, while the Park Hill Stakes should feel like a morning stroll to Bineyah (3.40) after having been asked to tackle User Friendly and company in the Irish Oaks.

HUNG PARLIAMENT (nap 2.00) was named before the general election in the expectation that that would be the outcome. A greater degree of accuracy is hoped for in selecting him today.

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