01/13/2006 12:00AM

Maktoum al-Maktoum leaves enormous legacy


NEW YORK - The legacy of Maktoum al-Maktoum, the fabulously wealthy owner/breeder and ruler of Dubai who died last week at the age of 62, has had and will continue to have an impact on racing and breeding throughout the world for many years to come.

The eldest of the four Maktoum brothers, Maktoum was an integral part of a still-evolving Euro-Arab revolution, which has forever changed the face of racing. Through the 1970's, as he and his three younger brothers, Hamdan, Mohammed, and Ahmed, were only just beginning to lay the foundations for what ultimately would become the most powerful racing empire in the world, the U.S. was maintaining a near 50-year pre-eminence in racing and breeding circles, while in Europe the sport continued to be dominated by old-line families whose bloodlines frequently stretched back further than those of the Darley Arabian. In 1975, no one in Lexington, Newmarket, Chantilly, or The Curragh had the foresight to see what would happen to the game during the last quarter of the 20th century.

Well, perhaps one man did. Ireland's genius horseman Vincent O'Brien had determined that Northern Dancer would be the most important stallion in the world over that period. With the backing of Robert Sangster, he began raiding America's big yearling sales in the 1970's in search of the best of the Dancer's offspring. His savvy opened the eyes of many other European buyers. More important, the Maktoums were alerted to the possibilities inherent in American bloodstock, particularly that of the Kentucky kind.

The discovery of oil in the Arabian Gulf off the coast of Dubai in the 1960's had quickly filled to bursting the coffers of that tiny emirate's treasury. At the same time, the Maktoum brothers were returning from England, where they attended college, as well as Newmarket and Ascot, where they fell in love with Thoroughbred

racing. They followed the O'Brien/Sangster team to Keeneland and Saratoga with satchels full of petrodollars, sending yearling prices soaring to dizzying heights. Between 1975 and 1985, many of the best-bred horses in America were ferreted out of the country at prices that would have made Midas weep. A large number of them wound up running in the assorted colors of the Maktoum family.

Sheikh Maktoum, while not as big a spender as his brother Mohammed, was not shy about dropping a few million on an untested yearling. He spent $7 million for a Nijinsky colt in 1985, but the nature of the Maktoum-led revolution lay not so much in any of the individual prices the brothers and their European rivals were paying for horseflesh, but in the wholesale withdrawal of many of Kentucky's best-bred yearlings.

The Maktoum outlay became so great that even in their glorious riches they could no longer ignore the prices being paid. From the beginning of their American raids, they had conspired not to bid against one another at Keeneland and Saratoga, but Sangster's presence in the sales ring was proving irksome. During the winter of 1986, Sheikh Mohammed, always the most forward of the four Maktoum brothers, both politically and in racing, invited Sangster and O'Brien to visit Dubai. There took place a meeting that would eventually burst Kentucky's bloodstock bubble.

For in Dubai that winter Sangster and the Maktoums decided not to bid against each other at future sales. Yearling prices collapsed as a result. The Keeneland crash of '86 was to the bloodstock market what the crash of '29 was to Wall Street. The Keeneland July average was down 17 percent that year and would continue to fall in the future. The rot had set in. So severe were the repercussions that Calumet Farm, America's most revered stud farm, went bankrupt. Spendthrift Farm, the home of Affirmed and Seattle Slew, was reduced to near penury. Farms would close throughout Kentucky, and there were the Arabs buying up prime Kentucky real estate.

Sheikh Maktoum himself had opened Gainsborough Farm near Versailles, Ky., in 1984. Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stud now occupies Jonabell Farm in Lexington. Even after the crash of '86, the Maktoums continued to wean the best of American bloodstock out of Kentucky, as they had little trouble outbidding Americans to pick up whatever yearlings they wanted. Virtually all of the horses bred by the family in America wind up racing either in Europe or the United Arab Emirates, returning to the U.S. only after opportunities elsewhere have dried up.

In 1984, the brothers Maktoum and Mohammed founded Godolphin, the Newmarket- and Dubai-based racing stable that has since gone on to win more than 100 Group or Grade 1 races worldwide. A large majority of those winners were either Kentucky-bred or descended from Kentucky-breds who had been bought at yearling sales in America. The depletion of top-class, native-bred horses in the United States and the resulting decline in the quality of the American sport dates from the 1970's, when the Maktoums began their annual raids. This, along with the current power of the Maktoums around the world both in the breeding shed and on the racetrack, is the legacy of Maktoum al-Maktoum. Once America had Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Alydar. Now we have Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, and Giacomo, while the Maktoums have Dubai Millennium, Daylami, Fantastic Light, Lammtarra, and Balanchine.

And let's not forget what the Maktoums have achieved in Dubai. Until 1960 little more than a desert trading post, Dubai now hosts the world's richest race meeting, one highlighted by the world's richest race, the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

There have been, over the last century, two ways in which a nation can improve its racing fortunes in the long term. One is through international cataclysms like World Wars I and II, after which a victorious America profited greatly as Europeans in search of ready cash were only too willing to sell quality bloodstock to sharp-eyed American horsemen. By the 1950's American racing was second to none.

The other is through the great man theory, and it is by that avenue that Arab and European racing interests, spearheaded by such people as Vincent O'Brien and the Maktoum brothers, have gained the ascendancy since 1975.

Maktoum al-Maktoum was at the center of all of racing's earthshaking movements during the last 30 years, movements whose repercussions will continue to be felt worldwide for the foreseeable future.