10/21/2001 11:00PM

The Middle East and the Cup

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WASHINGTON - People of Middle Eastern descent have generally been keeping a low profile in this country since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but they will be a major presence Saturday in New York. Or at least their horses will.

Of the 104 Thoroughbreds pre-entered in the World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont Park, 21 are Arab-owned. The probable favorites in five or six of the eight races, including high-profile stars such as Aptitude, Officer, and Sakhee, belong to Saudi princes and Dubai sheikhs whose vast wealth has enabled them to participate in the sport on a grand scale.

Prince Ahmed Salman is a nephew of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and runs a publishing empire in that country, but horses have been his passion since he was a college student in California. His racing operation, The Thoroughbred Corporation, owns more than 250 horses, including Point Given, who won two-thirds of this year's Triple Crown. Though Point Given's career was ended by an injury, Salman again has the most-talked about horse in the country, the undefeated 2-year-old Officer, favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Prince Khalid Abdullah, a first cousin and brother-in-law of King Fahd, has far-ranging business and Thoroughbred interests. Operating under the name Juddmonte Farms, he owns a 2,500-acre spread in the Bluegrass country, plus four farms in England and two in Ireland. His horses have won major races around the world, and he is poised to win the biggest of all when his 4-year-old Aptitude goes into the Classic as a solid favorite.

The Maktoum brothers - Maktoum, Hamdan, and Mohammed - rule Dubai, whose oil has made them among the richest men in the world. Since they took their first plunge at the Keeneland yearling sale in 1980, the Maktoums have spent more than $1 billion buying high-quality Thoroughbreds. Sheikhs Maktoum and Hamdan each own more than 300 racehorses and 200 mares, and they are small players in the game compared to Sheikh Mohammed.

Besides operating the largest racing stable in the world, Mohammed owns a dozen horse farms; he built a fabulous training center, Al Quoz, in his desert nation; and he created the world's richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup. Sheikh Mohammed owns Sakhee and Fantastic Light, who are both entered in the Classic and the Turf, and will be powerful contenders in whichever race they run. Sheikh Maktoum campaigns Lailani, the winner of seven straight races and the favorite in the Filly and Mare Turf.

Why do so many powerful owners come from a region that has little horse racing of its own? Part of the reason is, of course, money. Most Thoroughbred owners are affected by the vicissitudes of their countries' economies. (Free-spending Japanese buyers have largely vanished from major horse auctions.) But since the 1970's the oil-rich Gulf nations have been awash in money. Because these are not democracies, and the royal families essentially own the countries, little can affect their ability to spend lavishly for Thoroughbreds.

Moreover, the Arab world has a great horse tradition. John Veitch, who trained Alydar in the 1970's, spent a year operating the stable of Prince Faisel bin Khalid in Saudi Arabia, and said, "The original Thoroughbreds come from their part of the world and they take great pride in that fact. When they think of the greatness of the Islamic era, they think of Sueleyman the Magnificent leading the siege of Vienna on horseback. In Prince Faisel's throne room there is a big picture of his grandfather - the first king of Saudi Arabia - mounted on horseback. The horse is intertwined with their culture and religion."

Most of the Arabs involved in racing are knowledgeable horsemen. Sheikh Mohammed not only is an accomplished rider, but he built his great training center in Dubai so he could directly supervise a portion of the stable that christened Godolphin Racing. Many professionals scoffed until the horses supervised by the sheikh started winning all the great European classics.

Because the racing community respects them as serious horsemen, the Arabs haven't provoked the resentment that might be directed at men so rich that they can dominate the sport. It also respects them as sportsmen who are unfailingly gracious in victory and defeat. People who love Thoroughbreds tend to feel a bond with anyone who shares the same passion - even if they come from different cultures.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, however, Americans may take a slightly different view of the Arab owners. Not that the horsemen were tolerant of the terrorists. Sheikh Mohammed was at the Keeneland yearling sale when the World Trade Center was destroyed, and he told reporters immediately: "We are 100 percent against it and 100 percent with America to get these people to justice."

But since the attacks, the media have paid much more attention to the Middle East, and even people who principally read the Daily Racing Form have become more conscious of political issues there. A recent issue of Newsweek was devoted to the question, "Why Do They Hate Us?" and writer Fareed Zakaria concluded that the people in the Middle East really hate their own rulers. "Money," he wrote "has enriched and empowered Gulf governments so that they . . . have become more repressive over time."

The oil-rich Arab states "have become gilded cages, with frustrated, bitter, and discontented young men." Citizens can't protest and can't vote out their rulers, so their frustration has been channeled into a hatred of the country that supports these repressive governments: the United States.

Middle East expert Fouad Ajami made the same point in The Wall Street Journal: "A suffocating hate separates the ruler from the ruled in Arab lands. . . . Bin Laden . . . can't sack the dynastic order of the Gulf . . . so the avengers come our way."

Few of us in the racing world have thought of the Arab horse owners in political terms before. But they are part of the dynastic order of the Gulf, the ruling class in a region seething with hate and anger, and, viewed in this context, their obsession with horse racing seems not only self-indulgent but almost obscene. When the sheikhs and the princes accept their trophies at Belmont Park on Saturday, someone ought to ask them: "Shouldn't you be concerned with more important things?"

(c) 2001, The Washington Post