08/10/2010 12:34PM

Sheikh Mohammed Bails Out Kentucky Breeders


The banks have been bailed out. General Motors has been bailed out. And now Kentucky's breeders have been bailed out, not by the federal government, but by the man who runs the government of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
The presence of the wheeler-dealer who owns Darley Stud, Gainsborough Farm and Godolphin Racing at Saratoga's Fasig-Tipton Sale last week was not in the least unusual. After all, Sheikh Mohammed owns Fasig-Tipton as well and so has an interest in seeing that things run smoothly. Neither was it unusual to see his trusted agent, John Ferguson, sign the ticket for 14 lots. In all, Sheikh Mohammed dished out $6,445,000 to assorted Kentucky breeders, once again propping up an industry that would be floundering without him.
His purchases at Fasig-Tipton averaged $546,071 this year, nearly twice the overall average of $275,551. It was the same story last August at Saratoga as Sheikh Mohammed was also the leading buyer as Ferguson signed the ticket for 12 lots totaling $11,850,000, or an average of $987,500. By comparison last year's Fasig-Tipton average was $328,434.
Along with his older brother Hamdan Al Maktoum and their late eldest brother Maktoum Al Maktoum, the family has been propping up both the American and the British breeding industries for nearly 30 years. Last year at the first two elite days of the Keeneland September Sale, for instance, Mohammed and Hamdan, the owner of Shadwell Farm, bought 39 head between them for a total outlay of $17,375,000. That comes to an average of $445,512. The overall Keeneland two-day average was just $264,666.
It has been much the same story since the Maktoums first flew into Keeneland in 1980 for the first of their epic bidding duels with Robert Sangster and company. In the winter of 1986, however, the Maktoums summoned Sangster to Dubai where they did the devil's deal in agreeing not to bid against each other at Keeneland or Saratoga. The three Maktoum brothers themselves never had bid against each other at any sale, but this guy Sangster was costing them a lot of money. That infamous gathering in the desert triggered the collapse of the American breeding market in 1986, but it also signaled a sea change in the geography of Kentucky, or at least the names painted on the signs at breeding establishments throughout the Bluegrass State.
When sale prices plunged in '86, many Kentucky farms began going belly up and it was the Arabs who bought them out. Property that had been used to breed Thoroughbreds exclusively for American racing became Darley Stud, Shadwell Farm, Gainsborough Farm and Juddmonte Farm. Most of the horses foaled at these places would be shipped to England, France or Ireland to race there. The loss to American racing was incalculable, but goes largely unreported year after year, the American racing industry preferring to bury its head in the sand under the philosophy of "out of sight, out of mind."
In the meantime, the Maktoums have kept the Kentucky bloodstock afloat with their high spending ways. They also run a number of their horses in America as, along with Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms, they are among the leading breeder/owners in America, as most of the biggest American breeders prefer not to race. Instead they breed to sell.
Is this a healthy situation? A quote from what may be the most important book on racing and breeding ever written, Patrick Robinson and Nick Robinson's "Horsetrader", a biography of Robert Sangster, is as pertinent today as when the book was published in 1993.
"In the early 80's there was an unmistakable feeling at training establishments all over the USA and Europe that none of this (the racing) counted as the prime object any more; that breeders were breeding horses for the stud, to breed other horses for the stud; that the only thing that counted was the 'paper', the pedigrees and the yearling sales...All the big money was in breeding. The actual sport of horse racing was getting left behind the industry which was supposed to support it"
Twenty-five years later, we may be moving into an era when the breeding industry is no longer able to support itself without what amount to Maktoum-sponsored subsidies.

Jim More than 1 year ago
Yes, I cannot agree more with the final sentence. Something has gone awry in the United States. We have lost ourselves. Not just in racing, but a lot of aspects of our culture. Turf racing in this country cannot get any lower than it has in the recent past. The Canadians shipped four horses in for the marquee race at the Spa. 75% of the horses finished first, second and third. We all marvel at what Zenyatta does, but in all likelihood, if Sea The Stars was brought over here for last year's Classic, she would have lost by a minimum of 4 lengths. With this year's Breeders' Cup at CD, it will be mighty interesting to witness what the Euros do. They have experienced a bonanza in the past two years with the balance of races taking place on the synthetic tracks, however, if they come over this year and dominate on the dirt and continue their ways on the turf, it could yield many to raise the white flag.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wrong on a Major point in your story. The 1986 crash was a direct result of Reagan's major change in the tax law. The decline was across all level of horse offered. The rest is pretty accurate, except the part about reporting the stories about all the good bloodstock leaving this country. I've read about it in different publications over the years. Also, this is a very small niche "sport" that has never gotten mainstream press except for the Derby. We seem to be reverting to racing as it was in 1970.
winngcolrz More than 1 year ago
It's not EXACTLY like Sheikh Mohammed 'bailed out' the Tb breeders this season....c'mon! Although we appreciate his sportsmanship, his dedication to the sport and industry, he didn't single handedly save anyone! Seriously? He wasn't the only bidder on any of the horses that he did purchase--he was simply the WINNING bidder. Those 14 horses could have easily ended up being owned by 14 other entities, and then you wouldn't have a story would you? How romantic to spin the Saratoga sales this way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is it possible that in the big picture the Sheikh actually keeps other would-be big spenders away from the sales ring? He certainly injects a ton of money into the Kentucky breeding industry, but I wonder how many "big fish" he is keeping away. In the short term his money is greatly needed, but over the long term those dollars might deprive the industry of a broader base and, ultimately, viability. How many wealthy horse owners have been driven from the upper-echelon yearling market because of an inability to compete with the Sheikh?
Nathan More than 1 year ago
Insightful blog. Wish it could have ran on longer. The story here is that the Maktoum's have been buying up the horses bred here and shipping them overseas to race in England, Ireland and the UAE. And when they ship them, they don't come back. They breed the horses over there. So, the breeding in England, France and Ireland is becoming much richer and diverse, while the American breeding is getting narrower and more limited to a point where we have a bunch of inbred Northern Dancer's running around who can't stay sound for more than a race or two without lasix and god know's what else. The Kentucky blue bloods are burying their hands in the grass and taking Maktoum's money while they sell out American racing.
Ruben Flores More than 1 year ago
It has been some time since the breeders in the USA dicided it was more important to win a MSW 2yo race in july than a 1 1/4 race as a 4yo; why? i dont know, purses have always been higher for older horses as are the more highly regarded races , stud fees are probably the reason, in the past american breeders would be on the look out for stallions or mares that would better their lines and tried to keep that line, now as soon as they have a good horse or mare they try to get it sold as fast and for as much as they can; the results is they ended up with the horses people like Darley or Coolmore dont want, and now are concerned that the american breed is in trouble, the Juddmonte,Coolmore and Darley operations will control breeding in the future and americans will have to go and buy the horses from them at a price that may end up being out of the league of most.
PMC More than 1 year ago
This just mirrors the fact that the FIRE (finance, insurance & real estate) segment of the economy has taken over and IS the economy. Any idea as to why a few of the filthy rich Americans we've produced in this new gilded age haven't gotten involved in the race horse biz like these oil sheiks?
Bruce Friday More than 1 year ago
In addition to supporting his interest in the Fasig-Tipton Sales Company, the Sheikh's yearling purchases were also heavily weighted towards offspring of his own stallions. Nine of his fourteen purchases (commanding $3.6 million) were for yearlings sired by stallions from his own Darley/Jonabell Farm (Elusive Quality, Hard Spun, Street Cry, Bernardini, Medaglio d'Oro, Street Sense). If you log on to the Darley/Jonabell Farm web site you will see headlines: "Strong Conclusion for Fasig-Tipton" and "Darley sired yearlings among top prices at Saratoga". It does seem a bit incestuous. Having said that, I'm not sure it's a bad thing. Isn't it better to have him and his associates supporting the industry than not? I share the concern regarding the priority of breeding vis a vis racing, but it's been going on as long as I've been watching and it's not limited to foreign ownership. Secretariat was syndicated as a stallion before he made his first start as a 3 year old and was whisked away to stud at the end of the season. I have to admit, I felt a bit cheated out of the chance to see him perform as a handicap horse. Unlike many of the domestic breeding operations however, Darley/Godolphin seems to have a keen interest in the racing game as well. I enjoy seeing their horses run and I'd guess their American based trainers are happy as well.