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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:22AM
His empire lacks only roses
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Thirty years ago, while Saudi Arabian prince Khalid Abdullah was conducting some family business in France, he found himself sipping coffee and idly watching trotting races on television. The scene gave him a thought.
"One day," he told himself, "I think I would like to own a horse."
From idle thought to international juggernaut. Abdullah, now 66, has become one of the world's most influential and successful Thoroughbred breeders, founder of the renowned Juddmonte Farms. His American, English, and Irish operations cover 7,000 acres and have put his horses in the sport's best winner's circles: the Epsom Derby, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the Irish Derby, and the Breeders' Cup. He has more than 600 horses and has bred and raced many champions, among them Epsom Derby winners Quest for Fame and Commander in Chief; Arc winners Dancing Brave and Rainbow Quest; and North American champion turf females Wandesta, Ryafan, and Banks Hill.
But Abdullah has yet to win perhaps the greatest prize of all - the Kentucky Derby. This year, Abdullah plans to attend the Derby for the first time, and he has good reason. His colt Empire Maker, trained by Bobby Frankel, could be the shortest-priced Derby favorite since Arazi went off at 4-5 in 1992.
Empire Maker was a promising 2-year-old last year and burst into prominence on March 15 when trainer Bobby Frankel put blinkers on him for the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Empire Maker smashed his rivals by almost 10 lengths, then came back a month later in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial and won by a half-length without being urged over a muddy strip.
The colt's record has provided a compelling reason for the prince to emerge from a highly private life and make a rare public appearance next Saturday at Churchill Downs. And if he wins, the victory will place a capstone on the Thoroughbred empire that Abdullah began building in earnest in 1977, the year he bought Empire Maker's second dam.
The mare, a daughter of In Reality, was named Image of Reality. One of Abdullah's first purchases, she turned out to be a pillar of the Juddmonte empire and a direct link to its 2003 Derby hopeful.
"We didn't look for particular families," said Abdullah's American racing manager, Dr. John Chandler, referring to their early purchases. "We decided to buy 10 mares at the sales, and we averaged about $400,000 or $500,000 apiece. We paid quite a lot for Image of Reality. She was in foal to El Gran Senor and produced a filly called Navarra, and we bred her back to El Gran Senor and got Toussaud.
"Image of Reality acted like she was dumb," he continued. "She was a funny mare to be around. And Toussaud herself was a completely different sort of a mare. When she was a yearling, sometimes she would stop in the middle of the barn, and you couldn't get her to move. She would just stand there. Sometimes she would be in her stall and wouldn't come out of her stall. You would have to take another filly in there and lead them out together. In training, she would just stop occasionally. She showed some ability, but she was difficult to train.
"She went to Bobby's, and she would only train the wrong way around the track. He had to get special permission a few minutes after the track closed to gallop her the wrong way around.
"When she was 4, we asked Bobby if he wanted to keep her in training, and he said, 'Aw, she's such a pain!' It's just as well she went to stud, because she's done what we needed since then."
Toussaud went on to become the dam of Grade 1 winners Chester House, Honest Lady, and Chiselling and Grade 2 winner Decarchy. She produced the Unbridled colt Empire Maker on April 27, 2000.
"It was just another birth," Chandler said. "I just wandered by to look at him about four hours after he was born, because it was a foal out of Toussaud and I wanted to make sure everything was okay."
Near perfect as a foal, Empire Maker received his early training at Juddmonte in Lexington and impressed from the beginning.
"He had a marvelous way of going, was such a fluid mover and covered ground so effortlessly," Chandler recalled. "Horses that we thought were quite okay, he would toy with them like he toyed with the horses in the Wood. We were always very excited about him."
A man of varied business interests
Abdullah has had ample means to develop his Thoroughbred interests. A first cousin of King Fahd, Abdullah is part of Saudi Arabia's royal family, the 30,000-member House of Saud that is the major beneficiary of the country's oil wealth. Some of his close relatives have shared his passion for the Thoroughbred, most notably the late princes Ahmed bin Salman and Fahd Salman. Ahmed was Abdullah's nephew and winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby with War Emblem. Fahd was Abdullah's nephew and son-in-law and won the 1991 Epsom and Irish derbies with Generous. The two brothers died a year apart, apparently of heart attacks: Fahd, 46, in 2001 and Ahmed, 43, in 2002.
Khalid Abdullah is also a prince, but he prefers to be known as a Saudi Arabian businessman. "Businessman" hardly describes the many commercial interests and immense wealth he has through his involvement in the al-Mawarid Group. The conglomerate, managed now in large measure by Abdullah's four sons, has ties to two large Middle Eastern communications companies: Orbit Network, a television broadcasting company, and Iridium, a satellite telephone company. Al-Mawarid also has interests in the cement, insurance, and catering businesses, and Abdullah himself owns a 1-percent interest in the Chase Manhattan Bank, according to information provided by Juddmonte to the Breeders' Cup organization. That information noted that Abdullah is "semi-retired," but those who know him best will tell you that the prince has a full-time interest in his horses.
That interest first created a splash in North America in the early 1980's, when Abdullah and the Maktoum brothers of the United Arab Emirates began spending lavishly for yearlings and farmland. In 1981, Abdullah and Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum together spent more than $10.5 million at the Keeneland July selected yearling sale, launching an era of Arab dominance at the country's top auctions.
The following year, Abdullah purchased Dr. Herbert Schnapka's Belair Stud near Lexington as part of a reported $30 million deal that also included Schnapka's Irish stud farm, Ferrans Stud. The sale included 38 broodmares and a raft of shares to such stallions as Blushing Groom, Lyphard, and Riverman. Juddmonte USA, both the place and the breeding program, were born. In the years since - unlike his Dubai counterpart, the promotional-minded Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum - Abdullah has gradually decreased his public appearances as Juddmonte's breeding program has become nearly self-sufficient.
Abdullah has remained so private that it is unusual for anyone to contact him directly, outside his most intimate circle of friends and advisers. He rarely, if ever, grants interviews, and facts about his family, his activities, and even his views on racing matters are difficult to come by. Even Frankel, who has trained horses for Abdullah for 13 years, has met him only a few times.
Chandler knows Abdullah better than most and provided the details of the prince's first idle thoughts about owning a horse 30 years ago. The South African-born veterinarian has been part of Abdullah's team since the late 1970's, and their relationship has grown from business to friendship. Chandler is now president and general manager of Juddmonte USA, and he is one of the few people who can speak with authority on Abdullah's personality and philosophy, at least as they apply to Thoroughbreds.
"He likes to win races, he's competitive," Chandler said. "He really enjoys it. He loves his horses, and he knows more about his operation that anybody. He knows all his horses, and he has 250 mares and 375 horses in training."
Abdullah personally plans many matings for his mares and also selects which yearlings go to which trainers each season.
"He makes up his mind that certain horses will be good horses," Chandler said, "and he gives them to good trainers."
Frankel: A dream job
Frankel is one of those good trainers. Juddmonte approached Frankel after a computer analysis by Chandler showed that Frankel had a good record with turf horses and older runners. When Chandler called with an offer in 1990, Frankel said he didn't know very much about Juddmonte, except that his friend Eddie Gregson had some horses for them.
"I told them I would think about it," Frankel said. "Can you believe it?"
After Gregson told Frankel that Juddmonte was the best job in racing, he accepted.
"It's been a very easy job," Frankel said. "They pretty much hire you, and you make most of the decisions. If you do well, you're in good shape. If you don't do good, they lose confidence in you. It's a dream job. I would probably quit training if I didn't have them as owners.
"The thing I like about him is that the horses come first," Frankel said of Abdullah. "I remember when I first started working for him, I had a filly in a $500,000 stakes that I had to scratch. I just wasn't comfortable running her. And it was no big deal to them to scratch her."
The job has given Frankel, who got his start by reforming claiming horses in New York, a new respect for the power of pedigree.
"At one time, I wouldn't have believed it, but having a filly like Toussaud and then her foals, it's a little edge knowing them and training her and all her foals," he said. "I never believed in breeding as much as I have in the last few years, getting the foals out of the mares I've trained."
Abdullah, Chandler, and Frankel all played a role in Empire Maker's development from several generations back. It's a typical Juddmonte story. And the satisfaction, like the pedigrees, runs deep.
"One of the nicest things about this operation is seeing things that you're familiar with and have thought a lot about coming along and vindicating the time and effort and faith you've had in them," Chandler said. "To win the Derby might not be the ultimate peak in the world, but it's pretty close. You don't stop there, but it would be very exciting, and I know the prince would be very happy. We would be very happy."
And the elusive prince would be there to enjoy it.
"I told him, 'You will never in your entire breeding life have a better shot before the race of winning the Kentucky Derby than you do right now,' " Chandler said. " 'This is the best horse you've had racing in this country, and you will never have a better shot.' "