04/10/2008 11:00PM

Fasig-Tipton buyer has ties to Sheikh

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The corporation that has purchased Fasig-Tipton is led by a young Dubai businessman who is close to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, but Maktoum does not have a financial stake in Fasig-Tipton and will not play any role in the auction company's management, Maktoum's chief bloodstock adviser said Friday.

John Ferguson, speaking one day after Fasig-Tipton's surprise announcement that it had been sold privately to Dubai-based Synergy Investments Limited, said, "It's not Sheikh Mohammed's company; it's Abdulla al-Habbai's company."

According to a release issued Thursday, Synergy's chief executive is Abdulla al-Habbai, described in the release as "a close associate of Sheikh Mohammed," immediately leading to speculation that Maktoum, in fact, was the sale company's buyer.

Maktoum's capital might not be involved in the purchase, but an industry insider with close ties to Dubai, who asked not to be named out of concern for offending Maktoum, said Maktoum undoubtedly can influence al-Habbai and Synergy's vision for Fasig-Tipton.

Relatively little is known publicly about Synergy's chief.

According to published reports covering Dubai commerce, al-Habbai's businesses include contracting, a foodstuffs trading company, and cargo companies in the United Arab Emirates. He also serves on various boards, including that of the Noor Islamic Bank, and he is deputy chairman of Deira Investment, a company established by Maktoum and now involved in a $5 billion real estate and tourism project in Dubai.

Al-Habbai is reportedly in his mid- to late 30s, and, prior to the Fasig-Tipton deal, had not been known to be involved heavily in Thoroughbred racing.

"In the course of our negotiations with Synergy, we received satisfactory assurances and achieved a satisfactory comfort level that Fasig-Tipton will be operated going forward in a way which will preserve the legacy of the present ownership group," Fasig-Tipton chairman D. G. Van Clief Jr. said Friday when asked what convinced Fasig-Tipton's board that al-Habbai and Synergy were the right buyer for the 110-year-old equine auction house.

Van Clief said the company "was not shopped," but that Fasig-Tipton's majority shareholders since 1991, John Hettinger and his family, felt the time and buyer were right.

"I do not think, in the early years following the Hettinger group's acquisition, that their interest would have been for sale at any price," he said. "In recent years, however, there has been a growing sense that the job of first stabilizing and then growing the company has been accomplished. Although the company has not been engaged in seeking additional shareholders or buyers, it was clear that a fair offer from one or more qualified investors would be considered. I think the big news is that the new owner will operate Fasig-Tipton much as a not-for-profit, with the industry as beneficiary."