10/30/2006 12:00AM

Call it checkbook horsemanship

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WASHINGTON - Thoroughbred racing has regularly thwarted the aspirations of the richest princes, tycoons, and bluebloods - people whose money can buy success in any other endeavor. The late trainer Woody Stephens often used to say: "You can't buy this game."

But Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has disproved this maxim. He and other members of oil-rich Dubai's ruling family have used their wealth to achieve unprecedented success. The Maktoums have dominated British racing for two decades so thoroughly that they now yearn for new worlds to conquer. A few years ago, Sheikh Mohammed declared, "We no longer focus prominently on Britain. Our ambitions are global."

The Maktoum juggernaut reached the U.S. this year. The sheikhs have won many of the nation's most important stakes races, including two-thirds of the Triple Crown series. On Saturday at Churchill Downs, the family will probably clinch the Horse of the Year title in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The race is a showdown between Bernardini, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, and Invasor, owned by his brother, Sheikh Hamdan.

Before this year, the Maktoums had raced in the U.S. on a relatively limited scale, with limited success. Their approach to American racing wasn't smart. Sheikh Mohammed's quest to win the Kentucky Derby has been a fiasco, because he wants to train 3-year-olds in Dubai during the winter before shipping them to Kentucky. The strategy doesn't work. Moreover, the sheikhs seemingly couldn't comprehend that horses with dirt-oriented pedigrees usually win American dirt races - not European grass runners.

Sheikh Mohammed still clings to his futile Derby strategy, but the Maktoums have finally learned what types of horses win in America.

"This year we've been seeing a lot more American-type pedigrees instead of the turf-type horses," said Tom Albertrani, who trains Bernardini.

With such horses, the sheikhs have won the most important dirt races in the East. Bernardini delivered overpowering performances to capture the Preakness, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Invasor won the Pimlico Special, the Suburban Handicap, and the Whitney. Jazil won the Belmont Stakes. Discreet Cat, undefeated in five starts, is skipping the Breeders' Cup, but he could be the horse of the year in 2007. Henny Hughes, owned by Sheikh Mohammed's son Rashid, has won three straight stakes and is favored in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He may have to outrun Dubai Escapade, the nation's fastest filly sprinter - owned by Sheikh Mohammed.

How have the Maktoums become so much more successful than other super-rich owners?

Most wealthy people in the sport won't spend money in a fashion that makes them appear foolish or vulgar. The Maktoums are unfettered by such constraints.

At a time when the populations of Arab countries are seething with resentments against their own leaders, the rulers of Dubai don't hesitate to engage in self-indulgence on a gargantuan scale. They are unembarrassed that this money derives from the natural resources of their country - resources that, in a democracy, would belong to the nation. Over the years they have bought more than $1 billion of horseflesh at U.S. auctions. In two days at the Keeneland yearling sale this fall, the Maktoums bought 49 horses for a total of $71.9 million. Sheikh Mohammed purchased a single yearling for $11.7 million, more than any Thoroughbred has ever earned in his racing career.

Other wealthy horse owners restrict their own success by treating racing as a sport. After breeding their own horses, or buying yearlings, they want to affirm their judgment by testing those horses against other people's best. For the Maktoums, however, it is not enough to buy the most expensive yearlings and to breed hundreds of regal horses each year. If they see a young prospect with exceptional talent who happens to be owned by somebody else, they try to buy him. And they usually succeed - by making an offer that a rational owner cannot refuse.

Many of the Maktoums' private purchases haven't panned out, but this year they have achieved much of their success by buying horses that other people developed. After Discreet Cat won the fastest 2-year-old maiden race at Saratoga last summer, Sheikh Mohammed bought him for a staggering $6 million. After Henny Hughes won a stakes race by 15 lengths, Rashid bought him for $4 million. After Invasor won the Uruguayan Triple Crown, running for peanuts in his home country, Sheikh Hamdan bought him for $1.4 million. None of these purchases required special insight or judgment, just the willingness to pay an outlandish price. Buying up all the competition is not exactly sport as most people define it. It's as if George Steinbrenner stocked the New York Yankees with every high-priced free agent and then, worried that he might not win the pennant, bought the Boston Red Sox, too. Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stud is technically the breeder of Bernardini, but it "bred" him by buying the expensive mare Cara Rafaela while she was pregnant and carrying the future champion.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticize the Maktoums because they play the game more aggressively than anybody else. Perhaps the criticism smacks of xenophobia. But their domination of U.S. racing will harm the sport in an important, if intangible, way.

While Thoroughbred racing has declined in popularity, it has had one saving grace. The human stories associated with the game - particularly the Triple Crown series - have commanded keen public interest. Funny Cide's pursuit of the Triple Crown thrilled America because a syndicate of middle-class citizens owned the gelding. Smarty Jones's rags-to-riches saga was similarly compelling. Unbridled's victory touched the nation because TV cameras showed trainer Carl Nafzger hugging the frail, 92-year owner and telling her, tearfully, "You've won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter! I love you!" These are the events that give horse racing a tenuous hold on the affections of the American public.

If the sheikhs owned Funny Cide or Smarty Jones or Unbridled or any future classic winner, interest in those horses would be minimal. Certainly, Bernardini has generated little attention, despite his brilliance as a racehorse. The sheikhs are remote figures. Their advisors, managers, and trainers are organization men. To outward appearances, theirs is a joyless operation. When the ruler of Dubai finally fulfills his goal and wins his first Kentucky Derby, nobody is going to hug him and exclaim, "You've won the Kentucky Derby, Sheikh!" And few people will cheer because he has succeeded in buying the game.

(c) The Washington Post