RACING:Sheikh at crossroads

The world's most powerful owner aims to bestride the globe, but at home a different colossus holds the Flat under his sway
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The Independent Online
It was Sheikh Mohammed's most open audience yet. The world's most powerful racehorse owner invited the British press to his Al Quoz stables yesterday to deliver his thoughts on trainers, horses and his fledgling Godolphin operation, which last year produced the mighty Balanchine.

The conference was in an enormous tent with huge decorations. A 20ft tall lantern swung from the canopy and immense coffee pots, like props from Land Of The Giants, dominated the floor. But there was no furniture. The folk from the Fourth Estate, several of them extremely well-fed, had to lower themselves to the carpet at the feet of Sheikh Mohammed.

What Dubai's Minister for Defence had to say will also have many of his trainers on the ground. Following the great success of the Godolphin experiment last year, when horses were wintered in the hothouse of Dubai before going back to Europe, the Sheikh is keen to press ahead with the strategy. That will mean some trainers will lose their best two-year-olds to the East before they are returned under the guidance of a Dubian trainer.

Last year, Hilal Ibrahim was the guardian of the Godolphin horses in Europe, but this summer Saeed Bin Suroor will be the man at the helm. The 28-year-old will supervise about 30 animals in a separate yard at John Gosden's Stanley House stables in Newmarket.

Bin Suroor, like many of Sheikh Mohammed's employees, is from a group best described as keen young chaps. He once knocked down his garage to build two stables, and when the feed got low he got rid of the car as well to buy fresh supplies.

Such sacrifice had paid off, for this Flat season in Britain the former policeman will train such as Balanchine, who has fully recovered from the colic problems that almost took her life, the 2,000 Guineas aspirant Vettori, as well as Moonshell, who is moving so well on the Emirates gallops that she is a consideration not only for the 1,000 Guineas but the Derby as well.

Meanwhile, some of the Sheikh's trainers will have to get used to losing some of their more promising juveniles. "I have over 500 horses now and I have sent hundreds to many trainers, so is it too much to ask that I take away just one?" he asked yesterday. "I promise you that I am not trying to be a bully. But they are my horses."

Sheikh Mohammed may be a stunningly wealthy figure, but horses to him are not the accessories they are to some business fat cats. The animals are part of his culture, animals he is comfortable with. "I am a horseman and I like to see my horses," he said. "I appreciate my horses and the more you see them the more you appreciate them."

The oil supplies that have made Dubai rich are among the more exhaustible in the Middle East and the ruling Maktoum family is keen to develop a sound racing foundation before the wells run dry. A grass track is soon to be added to the current racing facilities of Nad Al Sheba and Jebel Ali and there are further plans for a lucrative invitation race.

But most of all, Dubai's rulers would like to see their country established as a centre for international forays, a warm and effective stopping-off point for horses competing in the growing market of the Orient or runners going the other way to Europe and the United States.

Balanchine's successes last year in the Oaks and Irish Derby suggested the climate and conditioning of Dubai have something to offer and Sheikh Mohammed is hoping the preliminary study will be confirmed when the new batch arrives in Newmarket just before the Guineas. "A good horse is a good horse anywhere," he said, "but with the training they get here and the energy from the sun, it cannot make them worse."