When Sheikh Mohammed bought a 51 per cent stake in Dawn Approach last summer, his decision to race the colt in the livery of Godolphin caused many to wonder. What, if anything, could Godolphin still be said to mean? Little could anyone realise, back then, that the answer might prove far more challenging than the question.
Had he bought Dawn Approach outright, the sheikh would presumably have transferred him to Mahmood al-Zarooni, whose abrupt ruin in a steroids scandal last week prompted closure of his stables pending voluntary testing of every inmate. In the event, having been left with Jim Bolger, the unbeaten colt is free to line up for the first Classic of the season at Newmarket today as an urgent source of succour for the sheikh – if not, in any coherent sense, for Godolphin itself.
Bolger says Dawn Approach has strengthened significantly over the winter and, while he cannot know the full improvement of such a laid-back character, already rates him “on a par” with the best he has handled. That will comfort the sheikh, who has done mutually productive business with Bolger in the past – not least over this colt’s sire. But New Approach went on to win the Derby in the colours of the sheikh’s wife, Princess Haya. When Kevin Manning instead wore royal blue silks on Dawn Approach last autumn, it seemed a final abrogation of Godolphin’s founding tenets.
Already the majority of Godolphin horses were being left behind in Newmarket, while only a core of runners for the Dubai season migrated to the sheikh’s homeland. The stable’s residual political identity seemed confined to the fact that its horses were trained by two Emiratis. Even that connection was frayed, however, with André Fabre and various Americans also credited as Godolphin trainers – and now Bolger as well.
Nobody, meanwhile, knew who was supervising the horses back in Newmarket. It was assumed that Zarooni and Saeed bin Suroor were delegating responsibility to unknown lieutenants. Until, that is, Zarooni – in his own testimony before receiving an eight-year ban last week – made a pre-season visit from Dubai on 14 March, and handed five unmarked syringes out of his car window to an assistant, together with a list of five horses.
Today, then, sets the sheikh a question. He has more than 200 horses officially without a trainer since Zarooni’s banishment. Will he attempt to restore the precarious purpose of Godolphin? Or will he quietly abandon his vaunted revolution, and distribute all these orphaned bluebloods among trainers whose abilities are measured by their CVs, sooner than by their passports?
For now, he can only be grateful that he has Bolger on his side. This is the man, after all, whose huge personal punt on the stallion potential of Galileo opened a back door to the precious bloodlines the sheikh had abjured in his boycott of Coolmore stallions. Bolger has been rewarded by the sheikh’s serial investment in Teofilo, New Approach and now Dawn Approach. Already celebrated as the mentor of Aidan O’Brien and Tony McCoy, Bolger is now guaranteed a lasting imprint on the thoroughbred itself.
With the receipts of his trade with the sheikh, he has converted farmland 40 minutes from his base into a lavish second estate of yearling paddocks, stabling and lush gallops. Even in the renovated splendour of the Georgian mansion where the young Disraeli would spend his holidays, Bolger maintains an astringent air. “The poor man has to be represented in racing,” he pronounces in those dry, parodic tones. “And I’m doing that. It’s not like going to Tipperary some sunny evening, and beating someone who hasn’t had a winner for a year or two, with something that is much better bred. There isn’t the same satisfaction in beating that kind of person as there is in beating a billionaire.”
O’Brien saddles three today for his “billionaire” patrons at Coolmore, but his work is cut out against a man with an austere hint of genius. “Even 35 years on, I don’t think you could describe me as part of the racing Establishment,” Bolger says. “That would be a step too far – for everyone. But I can hang in there now.”
For now, hard as it is to believe, that must also be an ample ambition for Sheikh Mohammed himself.