Sheikh’s acquisitions raise talk of breeding ‘superhorse’




LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -South Korean bloodstock agent Jay Bang attended the American thoroughbred auction with instructions from his clients to bring home the best horses he could for a few thousand dollars apiece.

Then the bidding started, and a mare – not a traditionally pricier stallion – sold for an unprecedented $10.5 million, leaving Bang in disbelief.

“I think it’s a crazy thing,” he said. “Some people just have money to burn, I guess.”

The regular buyers at Keeneland’s November sale didn’t even have to look to know who placed the record bid for Playful Act, a former champion in England. It was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

Since the 1980s, the Maktoum family has been active in American horse auctions, regularly spending millions of dollars to buy top stallions. But recently, the focus has expanded to include some of the world’s best mares – among them Round Pond ($5.75 million) and Octave ($4 million).

Some horsemen argue the impressive stable additions have heightened the prospect that the sheikh could some day breed a “superhorse” to dominate the top thoroughbred races in the United States – including the most visible prize, the Kentucky Derby.

“I’m sure it’s going to happen,” said Craig Bandoroff, owner of Denali Stud in Paris, Ky. “It’s going to happen because of the level he plays at, both in quantity and quality. It’s just a matter of time. We’d all love to see it. He’s been good for the business, good for the game.”

The sheikh’s Darley breeding operation spans six countries. Jonabell Farm in Lexington serves as its primary American hub, standing 16 stallions – including the sires of three of the last four Kentucky Derby winners. Darley owns some 240 mares in the United States, and more than half are in foal or scheduled to breed this year to one of the sheikh’s stallions.

The sheikh will have no Derby starter this year, and only one offspring of a Darley stallion is competing, Recapturetheglory by Cherokee Run.

Five horses owned by the sheikh’s Godolphin Racing company have run in the Derby since 1999, but none since Essence of Dubai finished ninth in 2002, the year Darley’s American breeding operation began. China Visit’s sixth-place finish in 2000 was the best showing for a Godolphin Derby starter.

But those horses required intercontinental flights to compete in the Run for the Roses. Now, the sheikh’s Derby contenders could be born and raised in Kentucky, likely helping their chances.

Even so, to some in the business, those odds remain astronomical.

More than 35,000 thoroughbreds are born each year. Only 20 can make the Derby. If a horse takes a misstep out of the gate, makes a wide turn or doesn’t handle the track conditions, even the surest front-runner can be upset.

That’s why horses with humble pedigrees and bargain-basement sale prices have shocked the world.

“One of the really neat things about this game is you can’t buy it,” said Dan Kenny, a partner with Four Star Sales in Lexington. “You can go out and buy the New York Yankees. You can go out and buy the Boston Celtics. But you can’t buy the Kentucky Derby.”

Darley officials acknowledge that.

“If money could automatically buy success, Sheikh Mohammed would be in a position to win the Derby every year,” said Dan Pride, Darley America’s chief operating officer. “But, to show you how tough it is, that’s still a goal. In American racing, a good horse literally comes from anywhere. I don’t think there’s any rational fear we’re going to be in a position to corner that success. The market is too deep in America.”

Still, Dubai’s connection to the thoroughbred industry increased in April when a Dubai company whose leader is a close associate of the sheikh announced it was purchasing Lexington-based Fasig-Tipton – North America’s oldest thoroughbred auction company.

But Fasig-Tipton’s director of marketing, Terrence Collier, said that move doesn’t indicate that the sheikh might start selling horses in America in addition to buying them.

“Would he have liked to have sold a Kentucky Derby winner through Fasig-Tipton? Probably not,” Collier said. “He probably wants to own it.”

And some American horse buyers aren’t puzzled at all why he would spend that kind of money toward such a seemingly elusive goal. To an equine enthusiast with that kind of wealth, they say, top stallions and mares are essentially collector’s items and deemed invaluable, regardless of the bottom line.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s diamonds or horses or rare paintings,” Bandoroff said. “When you’re playing at that level, they’re worth what they’re worth.”

Top stallions can reap huge profits, breeding with a different mare practically every day, sometimes for stud fees topping $100,000. But a mare can carry only one foal a year.

That’s why Darley’s high-priced purchase of Playful Act, following an intense bidding war with rival Coolmore Stud of Ireland, shocked many.

But Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales, refused to dismiss the investment as a novelty buy that couldn’t turn a profit. Should Playful Act give birth to one colt who enjoys racing success and is retired as a top stallion, the return on the investment would be several times over, he said.

“This mare is going to produce foals probably for 10 years,” Russell said. “You’ve got more than one shot – probably 10 shots. That’s why the young and beautiful of the foals are the most expensive. Their life span is ahead of them.”

First on the breeding schedule for Playful Act was Street Cry. The sire of last year’s Derby winner, Street Sense, also stands at Jonabell.

Perhaps that’s the combination that will give the sheikh his first trip to the winner’s circle in the Run for the Roses. Or perhaps that foal will never make it big, opening the door for yet another underdog to win.

“The beauty of the sport is you can have a $10,000 horse win the big race,” said Anil Mukhi, a bloodstock agent from India. “That’s what keeps the game going – the fact that you can still hope.”


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