05/23/2013 10:07AM

Dawn Approach's Derby bid a welcome distraction for Godolphin

Edward Whitaker
Dawn Approach, trained for Godolphin by Jim Bolger, will try to add the Epsom Derby to this victory in the 2000 Guineas.

On Saturday, May 18, Farhh won the Group 1 J.T. Lockinge Stakes at Newbury in England. Briefly, dark clouds parted for Godolphin, the international racing powerhouse conceived and headed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

The Lockinge was Godolphin’s first Group 1 stakes victory of the English flat-racing season, and Farhh, a product of Sheikh Mohammed’s breeding wing, Darley, looked formidable. It was the first time in a month that Godolphin headlines didn’t involve the word “doping.”

On April 21, the British Horseracing Authority announced 11 Godolphin horses trained by Mahmood Al Zarooni had tested positive for anabolic steroids, illegal in England. Four days later, the BHA suspended Al Zarooni eight years, and Sheikh Mohammed put his training yard, Moulton Paddocks, on lockdown.

Trainer Saeed bin Suroor sent Farhh out to victory. Bin Suroor’s Godolphin tenure long exceeded that of Al Zarooni, who nonetheless had supplanted bin Suroor as the operation’s number one trainer. The Lockinge felt like a small step back toward normalcy.

“I think winning top group one races moves everything forward as it is a major boost to the morale of the staff and it helps everyone to focus on a positive future,” Godolphin spokesman Simon Crisford wrote in an e-mail early Monday, May 20.

By Monday afternoon, it was steroids all over again. The entire Al Zarooni string had been tested by the BHA for steroids, and seven more positives were announced, bringing to 22 the number of known doped horses – (Al Zarooni himself had implicated four horses to go with the first 11). One of the latest horses to be named was Encke, who defeated Camelot – ending Camelot’s bid for the English Triple Crown – in the 2012 St. Leger Stakes.

The horses administered steroids, which build muscle and help recovery from strenuous exercise, are barred from racing until autumn. (See list of banned horses at bottom of article.) It will take longer for Godolphin itself to recover. There have been many missteps by the organization the last several months, but late last year, Godolphin did one thing very right: It left Dawn Approach with Jim Bolger in Ireland.

Dawn Approach, champion European 2-year-old of 2012, has won all seven of his races, the last three at the Group 1 level and by more than 12 lengths combined. His 3-year-old debut produced a five-length victory May 4 in the English 2000 Guineas, the first leg of England’s Triple Crown. No one is calling him the next Frankel, but Dawn Approach is unusually talented, and he will carry the famed Godolphin blue silks as the favorite to win the June 1 Epsom Derby.

Victory would be momentous: While Dubai’s ruling family has won the Epsom Derby, Godolphin has not. Their breakthrough would come at a most awkward moment, scandal still running hot.

Dawn Approach is a Godolphin color-bearer but stands apart from Godolphin’s ground-up philosophy, which has sought to control the cycle of a racehorse’s life: Breeding, rearing, training, and, for those adequately gifted or blue-blooded, breeding again. The organization has advanced Emirati trainers, like Bin Suroor and Al Zarooni, and jockeys, like Ahmed Ajtebi.

It was Jim Bolger who bred Dawn Approach, raised him, and trains him at Coolcullen in Ireland. Last June, after Dawn Approach won the Group 1 Coventry Stakes at Ascot, Godolphin bought 51 percent of the horse, Bolger retaining the remaining share. The agreement, Bolger said in a telephone interview, called for him to remain the horse’s trainer through the end of his 2-year-old campaign, with no plans firmly set for 2013. It was not until sometime after Dawn Approach won his final start at 2, the Oct. 13 Dewhurst Stakes, that the decision was made to leave the horse in Ireland.

Godolphin buys a handful of active racehorses privately each year, according to Crisford, but most are intended for winter racing in Dubai and wind up with Godolphin’s main trainers. Dawn Approach is the only horse Bolger trains for Godolphin, and in the normal course of events, he might well have been one of the horses “locked down” at Moulton Paddocks as the Derby approaches.

“I’m honored to be in the position I’m in,” Bolger said. “As to why, I don’t know.”

Bolger, 72, probably has some inkling: His relationship with Sheikh Mohammed has strong roots, dating to 1984, when Sheikh Mohammed bought a 2-year-old filly named Park Appeal from Bolger and left her with Bolger to race at 3.

Teofilo, the first of three straight Dewhurst winners for Bolger in 2006, is a Darley stallion, and Godolphin bought Creachadoir from Bolger in 2007. And the strongest connection between Bolger and Sheikh Mohammed is Dawn Approach’s sire, New Approach. Bolger bought New Approach at auction and trained him. When the colt won the 2008 Epsom Derby for Bolger, he wore the silks of Princess Haya of Jordan, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s wives. New Approach is also a Darley stallion, a particularly promising one.

Teofilo and New Approach are both sons of Galileo, a fact that points out the unique position occupied by Bolger.

Galileo is one of the signature studs owned by Coolmore, the Ireland-based racing and breeding operation with which Godolphin has a longstanding heated rivalry. Bolger himself helped Galileo to succeed with strong support early in the horse’s stud career, and Coolmore’s primary trainer, Aidan O’Brien, was once apprenticed to Bolger. Yet Bolger still has been able to maintain a position of respect and trust from Sheikh Mohammed.

Bolger is not well known in North America owing to the fact he has run just four horses in the United States, but he is a truly legendary figure in Irish racing. The son of a farmer, distant from Ireland’s racing establishment, Bolger has created his own mini-empire. He has won for volume, once setting a record for wins during the Irish flat season, and for prestige, with Group 1 winners in Ireland, Great Britain, France, Hong Kong, and Italy. In addition to the 100 horses he trains, Bolger runs a 75-strong broodmare band.

“Most of us just train racehorses, and it’s such a time-consuming enterprise we couldn’t contemplate doing anything else, having a breeding operation as well,” fellow Irish trainer John Oxx said of Bolger in a documentary film. “That’s a huge, risky enterprise.”

Having bred Dawn Approach, Bolger is intimately familiar with the colt’s development. Bolger has said Dawn Approach lacks stamina influences on the female side of his pedigree that New Approach possesses: He has yet to race beyond one mile and does not have the body type or stride of a horse clearly suited to the Epsom Derby’s 1 1/2-mile distance. But Bolger believes other attributes could make him a Derby winner. Long before he began racing, Dawn Approach stood out.

“When he was out in the paddock as a yearling you could even think about putting a saddle on him. That’s how he was,” Bolger said.

Dawn Approach had the temperament and physical tools to succeed earlier than most horses: His debut victory came on the first day of the 2012 Irish flat racing season. “He’s obviously very different,” Bolger said. “He was able to win on the first day of the season and then win the Guineas. That hasn’t ever happened before.”

Bolger trained Dawn Approach to win the Guineas without ever taking him to a racecourse, even for a fast workout. “He does most of his work at my base, where I train the horses,” Bolger said. “We probably have the stiffest gallop in Ireland: It rises 150 feet over one mile. Because of that, we wouldn’t have to breeze them as much. I also have a farm 35 minutes away where we have a grass gallop; we took him away over there to work, too.”

No doubt, Bolger will have Dawn Approach properly prepared for the Epsom Derby. A second win in the race would only burnish Bolger’s reputation. Less certain is what victory would mean for Godolphin, a fixture in English racing since 1981, when Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum, opened Gainsborough Stud. Al Zarooni came aboard late, moving up to head trainer in 2010, and the story put forth by Godolphin as well as the British Horseracing Authority is the classic “bad apple” explanation of malfeasance. In this telling, one individual, acting alone, lowered a powerful empire. It remains to be seen if one horse who has been running around the fields of southern Ireland can help raise it up again.


ENCKE:   4-year-old winner of Group 1 St. Leger
STEELER:   3-year-old winner of Group 2 Royal Lodge
ENERGIZER:   Group 3-winning 4-year-old
GENIUS BEAST:   Group 3-winning 5-year-old
IMPROVISATION:   Maiden winning 3-year-old
STAMFORD:   Twice-started maiden 3-year-old
ZIP TOP:   Group 1-placed 4-year-old
ARTIGIANO:   Multiple group-stakes placed 3-year-old; 6th BC Juvenile Turf
BATHRAT AMAL:   Unraced 3-year-old filly
CERTIFY:   Undefeated Group 1-winning 3-year-old filly
COMITAS:   Unraced 3-year-old
DESERT BLOSSOM:   Group 2-placed 3-year-old filly
FAIR HILL:   Unraced 3-year-old
GHOSTFLOWER:   Maiden 3-year-old filly
OPINION POLL:   Multiple group-stakes-winning 7-year-old
ORKNEY ISLAND:   Unraced 3-year-old
RESTRAINT OF TRADE:   Stakes-winning 3-year-old
SASHIKO:   Unraced 3-year-old
SWEET ROSE:   Unraced 3-year-old filly
TEARLESS:   Unraced 3-year-old
VACATIONER:   Unraced 3-year-old
VALLEY OF QUEENS:   Maiden 3-year-old filly