12/08/2006 1:00AM

Dynasty keeps getting stronger


NEW YORK - The year 2006 got off to an unhappy start for the Maktoum family when the eldest brother and president of Dubai, Maktoum al-Maktoum, died in an Australian hotel over the New Year's weekend. But the adjustments made after his death, both political and sporting, were handled with an aplomb that could never be duplicated in the modern world of Western democracies.

Designated decades ago by Papa Rashid to take over the Dubai throne upon Maktoum's death, third brother Mohammed easily slipped into the ruler's seat. He had always been the most charismatic of Rashid's four sons and had been, since the death of his father in 1990, the man all Dubaians considered their leader, in theory at least. Both second brother Hamdan, long ensconced as Dubai's Minister of Finance, and the late Maktoum's eldest son Mohammed accepted the situation with good grace.

The changes in Dubai's racing world were reflected by the turnover on the political side. Sheikh Maktoum's Gainsborough Stud, a worldwide empire with colonies in England, Ireland, France, and the United States as well as Dubai, reverted to the now all-powerful Sheikh Mohammed, who found himself in charge not only of his nation and Gainsborough, but of Darley Stud and Godolphin as well. No single individual in the world has as many horses under his control as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, not brother Hamdan and his Shadwell Stud, not John Magnier and his Coolmore Stud, not Khalid Abdullah and his Juddmonte Farms. Sheikh Mohammed reigns as supremely and serenely in the Thoroughbred world as he does in Dubai.

This year he emerged as the leading owner in the United States for the first time with $6.3 million in earnings. Close behind in second place was brother Hamdan with slightly more than $5omillion. Hamdan's horse Invasor and Mohammed's 3-year-old Bernardini, first and second in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the winners of seven Grade 1 races between them, might rate as the two best horses in America, unless one prefers the Godolphin runner Discreet Cat, the undefeated and as yet untested 3-year-old who handed Invasor his only loss with a seven-length beating in the UAE Derby in March.

The Maktoum family's ascension to the top of the American pile has generated more envy in some circles than all of the other seven deadly sins combined, but it is hardly as if they were the new kids on the block. Since the 1980's they have been the backbone of the American bloodstock industry, propping it up with the huge sums they have invested at Keeneland and Saratoga. Harshly criticized by some observers for his failure to win the Kentucky Derby by preparing horses in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed is now being targeted by many of those same critics who are now complaining because he and his brother have landed two of our three Triple Crown races with horses trained in these United States.

The American whining is similar to that of the British in the 1980's and 1990's, when the Maktoums seemed on the verge of turning the sport of kings into the sport of sheikhs. In the last 25 years, one member or another of the Maktoum family has won one of the 125 runnings of the five English classics 40 times. They have also won England's best race for older horses, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, 10 times during the same period.

With a racing and breeding empire as far-flung as theirs, success in America may have come rather late, but it was not unexpected.

Much has been made in Britain this year of Godolphin's failure to win a single Group 1 race. It is the first time that has occurred since 1993, the year before Balanchine won the English Oaks. Yet Godolphin topped the 2006 owner standings in Britain with earnings of $3omillion. And guess who chased Godolphin home? In second place was Hamdan al-Maktoum at $2.4 million. In third was Sheikh Mohammed's Gainsborough Stud at $1.9 million. Baby brother Ahmed came home eighth with $1.1 million, while Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable was 20th at $602,000.

Godolphin, Hamdan, and Gainsborough were the only owners in Britain whose earnings topped the one-million-pound mark. And it pays to follow Godolphin on a day-to-day basis in England, where a one-pound wager on each of Saeed bin Suroor's Godolphin starters, of which 70 won, would have turned a profit of 13 pounds, 17 pence, the only such profit among the top 21 trainers in Britain.

So a year that started in mourning for the Maktoums will end on a positive note. Fortified by successful bidding coups at Keeneland and Tattersalls this fall, as well as by the private purchases of leading American juveniles Day Pass and Blue Sky God, the family, especially at the Godolphin side, appears ready for a banner 2007. Led by Dubai World Cup favorites Invasor and Discreet Cat, the Maktoums could have an even more dominating year than the one coming to a close.

We should get used to it. If the spoiled offspring of the now long-gone racing American dynasties had not opted out of the sport, if the lords of American racing had not managed to banish the game to the edges of sporting society, no foreigner could ever have made the inroads on the game as have the Maktoums. Instead of complaining about their successes, we should be grateful to them for producing as many great horses as they have.