Racing: When figures don't add up: Good must come out of the latest furore over the Maktoums. Brough Scott reports

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The Independent Online
SHEIKH Maktoum, the senior member of Dubai's ruling family, was at Longchamp rather than Newmarket yesterday. The way the panic industry has been running since he and his brothers spent one week without buying a yearling it's a wonder his presence wasn't greeted as final proof of a total Maktoum withdrawal from our shores.

There will be no such thing. They remain the most lavish investors British racing has ever seen. After years of expansion to bursting point they have thought it wise to desist temporarily from their wish to support the ever-grateful but ever-asking breeding industry. They have also suggested, albeit gently, that part of the reason for their disaffection is that they feel that racing in Britain is doing too little to solve its problems.

These are two different points, but together they have made the headiest cocktail in the racing columns in years. One on-the-record, if very general briefing from Sheikh Mana to winning enclosure hacks on Thursday, and the 'Maktoums to go' balloon was soon soaring away above us.

The point about numbers has needed addressing for some time. Many of us have worried at the logic, the expense and most of all the fun of having quite so many horses in training in one territory. The family have more than 800 horses in training over here, more than 12 per cent of all flat racers registered and certainly more than 30 per cent of the ones that are any good.

On Thursday, the day Sheikh Mana made his statement, the Godolphin Stakes at Newmarket was won by a horse of Sheikh Maktoum's who beat a nine-runner field which included no fewer than four competitors in Sheikh Mohammed's colours. The fact is that our fixture list does not present enough opportunities for a bloodstock holding of this size. If 800 horses was cut to 600, it would have unhappy effects on trainers and stable staff but it would be logic all the same.

The need for pruning, and for prudence at the yealing sales, is accentuated by the fruits of the Maktoums' relentless pursuit of excellence at the breeding game. Their British and Irish studs will put almost 300 new horses into training next season. You don't need concerns about racing's organization and government funding to urge reviews in the old buying policy.

Nonetheless, this second point has become a growing problem for the Maktoum family. Despite their incredible loyalty which any review of their serried ranks of trainers will confirm, they don't like the feeling of being on what they perceive to be a sinking ship. The two central problems are the unfairness of the VAT legislation compared with the rest of Europe and the lower return of betting turnover to prize money in this country. One success of the past few years has been the increased intensity of this debate. But it's much easier to point up ills than to draw up answers, and as racing wrestles with its difficulties it's not surprising that its biggest investors have been made to feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Good can come from all this furore. The need to put the fixture list in some sort of order - there were no fewer than five meetings last Monday, for example - has never been more apparent. There is a new British Horseracing Board coming into being this winter. We, as well as the Maktoums, need to see it work.

None of that can or should guarantee winners, and yesterday's big Longchamp race escaped the Dubai silks. Sheikh Maktoum's Basim ran second to the British trained Tenby (new Derby favourite - wow]) in the Grand Criterium, and Sheikh Mohammed's Witness Box sank in the rain-sodden turf behind the talented tail-swisher Sought Out in the Prix Du Cadran, France's ultimate test for stayers.

The rain was pouring down again last night. The ground will be very testing today. But the winners will come. The hopes and fascination are still there. We and our biggest-ever supporters have to realise that there are going to be bumps before it is better.

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