Profile The Maktoums: Galloping into the sunset

Fiammetta Rocco on the Arab brothers who are could be about to abandon British horse-racing
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Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum is angry. He has been getting angry for some time, though few knew that until last Tuesday night when the leading racing luvvies gathered at York racecourse for the annual Gimcrack Dinner. When they had finished eating, the assembled crowd listened in stunned silence as the richest racehorse owner in Britain launched a spirited - and unprecedented - attack on the Government, the bookmakers and the chairman of the British Horseracing Board, Lord Wakeham, for failing the sport of kings.

The British government, Sheikh Mohammed said, took out six times the amount it returned to racing. Lord Wakeham only worked part-time, which was not enough. As for the bookies: "Their sole concern is to squeeze every last pound for their own, purely selfish interests. How the big bookmakers must laugh at us as they make their way to the bank with ever- increasing profits."

Reduced to a shifty silence, the audience could hardly agree on what surprised them most: the fact that the normally reticent Sheikh Mohammed should have launched such a withering attack at all, or that he chose to stay away from the dinner and have the speech read out, on his behalf, by one of his employees.

Sheikh Mohammed may not have been there in person, but there was no disagreement about the point he was trying to make. In Britain only 24 per cent of racing costs are recoverable with prize money, ranking it no higher than 36th in the international league tables of racing nations. Prize money is stagnating, and costs are rising every year. Unless there was real change - "positive signs of progress" were the words used - the Maktoums would withdraw their horses from Britain. "We will resign ourselves to racing in countries which bring us less pleasure but make more economic sense."

His words raised a question. If Sheikh Mohammed thought British racing was under-funded now, where would it be without the Maktoum family which underwrites hundreds if not thousands of jobs throughout the industry, ensures that Britain remains a centre of thoroughbred breeding and forces foreign trainers to send their horses to Britain to race if they want to pitch themselves against the very best? More than 1 million British families, in some way, earn their living from racing. So this is a crucial question. Many hope they will never have to discover what the answer is.

There are four of them: Maktoum al-Maktoum, Hamdan, Mohammed and Ahmed, all sons of the late Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Sa'id al-Maktoum, a mirthless figure who believed in absolute control. In America they call them the Dubai brothers. Their hold over the tiny Gulf emirate is so fierce that a recent family tree shows virtually all Dubai's top jobs - from vice-president down to information director and president of the courts - are shared between 15 Maktoum brothers and cousins.

Sheikh Maktoum al-Maktoum, who took over as Emir in August 1989, is as powerful a potentate as his father ever was, and his rule is law even today. The brothers grew up racing camels and falcons, as well as horses, and brook no criticism about how they run their favourite hobby.

When the Sporting Life published an article, at the end of 1988, arguing that the brothers' influence on British racing had become suffocating, the issue was quietly banned in Dubai. And when Natalie Cecil let it be known in October 1995 that Sheikh Mohammed's new stable in the Middle East, Godolphin, was affecting her husband's business, Sheikh Mohammed's response came within 24 hours. The sheikh sent his trailers round to Henry Cecil's stable and 40 horses were removed from under his care. Cecil had been training Sheikh Mohammed's horses for more than 15 years, and the rift has never been repaired.

Of the four, the eldest, Maktoum al-Maktoum, is also the most shy. The house he built himself in Newmarket is the biggest in the town, and stands, incidentally, next door to Henry Cecil's Warren Place. Part ante bellum colonnade and part Stasi fortress, the house fell months behind schedule when Sheikh Maktoum ordered that the pitched roof be taken down. Although it was replaced in 1992 with a terrace overlooking the gallops, Sheikh Maktoum is rarely seen out, except when he visits the racetrack.

The youngest brother is Sheikh Ahmed, now 46. Head of Dubai's central military command, he never really liked horse-racing that much. But his older brothers, especially Hamdan and Mohammed, proved very persuasive, and he is now a key player in promoting Dubai as a world-class racing centre. Though none of them is especially known for their humour, 51-year- old Sheikh Hamdan is considered the most dour. Loyal employees say he is a kindly man, and one friend attributes his serious nature to nothing more than a poor grasp of English and a bad complexion, which made him reticent as an adolescent.

Of the four, it is the third brother, 48-year-old Sheikh Mohammed - the speechmaker - who stands out. A handsome, articulate Sandhurst graduate with dark eyes that have become increasingly hooded as he has grown older, he is a crack shot, first-class flier and weapons expert. Not surprisingly, he is Dubai's Defence Minister. Luca Cumani, the Newmarket trainer, calls him the "whizziest" of the siblings for the love, energy and ambition he pours into racing. All four brothers contribute hugely, and discreetly, to British racing charities, and it was they who paid for the public all- weather gallops at Newmarket.

Mohammed al-Maktoum's introduction to British racing came 20 years ago when he bought a pretty little filly called Hatta. He paid 6,200 guineas for her and she repaid him by winning four races. The brothers today have more than 1,000 horses in training, a large proportion still in Britain.

The centre of Sheikh Mohammed's British racing establishment - Darley Stud Management - is at Dalham Hall, an impressive establishment for which he paid pounds 2m in 1984, then an astronomical sum considering it housed only 15 mares and one stallion. Vast new barns allow them now to house six times that number.

There are four other stud farms in Britain, and another four in Ireland. Of these the most important is Kildangan, the magnificent property Sheikh Mohammed bid for in 1983. He also owns the Carlton Tower Hotel in London and a stalking estate in Kintail, where he astonishes the locals and infuriates the farmers: the first because he gives away his sheep to old people's homes instead of selling them, and the second because he refuses to follow the farmers' lead and claim the EU sheep subsidy.

The sheikh is equally generous to those around him - he has given a number of the horses at the Godolphin stable in Dubai to close friends, and when he is particularly pleased at the care being given a horse he has been known to give an English stable boy thick wads of banknotes as a tip - but he's no soft touch.

The company that sold him Dalham Hall was in the habit of listing every horse on the property in its accounts at Companies House, every foal born during the year, and every penny the company spent on fodder, blacksmithing and writing paper. Today the information provided by Darley Stud Management is sparse in the extreme. It gives no details of its income and values its assets at only pounds 2, the value of its two issued shares. Moreover, it says its business is to act as an "undisclosed agent". For whom it doesn't say.

Nor does it reveal who are Darley's real owners, for, technically at least, the company belongs to two Jersey companies named AJ Dessain and Mandataire, which in turn hide behind a series of nominee companies with names like B+C Subscriber (Jersey) and B+X Trustee (Jersey).

Of course, Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers are not the only rich men to take advantage of legal corporate loopholes; that's what they're there for. But the fact that their racing interests are a business rather than a hobby, even if for many it is a folly of a business, indicates how intent they are about putting the racing empire on to a serious footing, and how ready they would be to move if they felt their racing interests come under threat, as one of their senior employees says, "in any way".

These are three key words: for the Maktoums, unhappiness with Britain is not only about money. Nor has it come about suddenly. When theytook the pools heir Robert Sangster on head-to-head in 1982, and spent $29.6m on 61 horses in just two days at the Keeneland yearling sales, they ensured that the horses which came to Britain were the very best in the world. Quite simply, without the brothers' investment, Britain would never have been able to continue competing with the US, France and the emerging Far Eastern centres as a world-class racing venue.

But the Maktoums received little thanks in return. Snobbish, provincial and cliquey, the Newmarket world was happy to take their money but rarely did it reciprocate with an affectionate welcome, preferring to regard the Arabs as over-moneyed and unsophisticated and laugh behind their backs.

If you look carefully, the Maktoums began to express their concern about British racing more than five years ago when Sheikh Hamdan made a guarded remark, while on the racecourse, to a television journalist, and added that henceforth he would be taking more horses abroad. Even his racing manager Angus Gold hadn't been told that at the time.

The Maktoums have never loved racing in France and the US the way they love racing in Britain. But one place is now all set to supersede the green gallops of English racing and that is Dubai. Forty of the Maktoums' horses are now at Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin stud in Dubai, which has become one of the most successful stables in the world. The sheikh and his brothers bring only their very best horses to race there in the winter. Moreover, the Dubai World Cup, which the brothers launched with a prize of $4m, is the the richest race in the calendar, surpassing even the seven Breeders' Cup events and the Japan Cup in Tokyo.

If the climate of English racing is turning colder, and the Maktoums prefer to stay in their sunnier home, who can blame them?