06/13/2006 11:00PM

Shadwell boosts its U.S. presence

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Jazil grazes after winning the 2006 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 10.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Rick Nichols might have been happier than anyone about Jazil's win in the Belmont Stakes.

Nichols helped Jazil's owner, Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, develop the American wing of his Shadwell breeding and racing empire back in 1985. Now 56, Nichols is especially gratified to see that program paying dividends, in the form of Grade 1 and classic winners, in the United States. The stable achieved its first Grade 1 victory in the United States on

May 19 when Invasor took the Pimlico Special. Three weeks later, Jazil's narrow decision over Bluegrass Cat in the Belmont landed Shadwell its first American classic.

Shadwell has long been a force in major English and European races, winning nine classic races in France, Ireland, and England since 1989. But in the last five years or so, the operation's North American division has gotten a boost as Sheikh Hamdan has turned greater attention to making his stallions in the United States more successful and popular with domestic breeders. That has meant pointing some of Sheikh Hamdan's most promising young racing prospects for United States dirt races instead of European turf.

Interestingly, neither Invasor nor Jazil was bred by Shadwell, which has a formidable 100-mare band in Kentucky. Invasor, last year's Uruguayan Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year, was a private purchase Sheikh Hamdan imported to the United States. Sheikh Hamdan purchased Jazil for $725,000 at the 2004 Keeneland September yearling sale.

But a homebred Grade 1 winner in the States is almost certainly in the cards, if Sheikh Hamdan remains intent on raising his American profile. The modern realities of the American stallion market will probably make sure he does.

"We put about 250 yearlings into training every year worldwide," said Nichols, Shadwell's vice president and general manager in the United States. "We've always bought about 20 to 25 from the States, most of them colts. Standing stallions and the commercialization of that has changed so much, and that's the main reason we've changed our

philosophy on running more in America. Years ago, when we first started, you had all these great stallions standing in the U.S. - Nureyev, Blushing Groom, Nijinsky, Northern Dancer. A lot of [their offspring] performed well in Europe, and you could take a Blushing Groom over to Europe, let them run well, and then bring them home and stand them here. But you can't do that anymore, because Americans won't breed to them. Americans love turf racing, but they don't want to breed for it. You've got to have a horse that won on dirt."

Sheikh Hamdan has upped his chances for those winners by leaving more 2-year-olds in the hands of American trainer Kiaran McLaughlin each year.

"This year, I have 10 2-year-olds for him," said McLaughlin, who trains both Jazil and Invasor. "I only had one for him three years ago, and last year I had six or eight."

The process itself won't change much, Nichols said, but the quality will.

"Once we've got all the yearlings, we still go through them and pick out which ones to stay and which ones will go" to England, he explained. "In the last two years, he's left us the best that he's ever left. There are only 12 babies coming up this year, but they're a very, very good bunch."

Sheikh Hamdan, the older brother of Darley owner Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, first came to the racing public's attention in the mid-1980's, when the Maktoum brothers cut a wide swath through Kentucky's yearling auctions to stock their fledgling stables. Sheikh Hamdan purchased his first Kentucky farm in 1985 but later traded it in a deal with Nelson Bunker Hunt, who was then facing financial trouble after his failed attempt to corner the silver market. In the trade, Sheikh Hamdan got more than 700 acres of prime bluegrass property. Since then, with Nichols playing a central role in design and development, Shadwell's Kentucky operation has grown to some 3,400 acres with about 100 mares.

Nichols first met Sheikh Hamdan in 1981 at the Keeneland November sale, when the sheikh purchased the broodmare Mashteen from Spendthrift Farm, Nichols's employer at the time. The mare was young, but her early foals had been crooked, and Nichols told Sheikh Hamdan so. The sheikh bought the mare for $1 million anyway, and he must have remembered Nichols's honest assessment, because four years later he hired Nichols to be his American farm manager. (Mashteen, incidentally, went on to produce Narjis - "a filly who was very crooked," Nichols adds - who became the dam of three stakes performers, including a Group 3 winner.)

"Originally, I was hired to manage a 350-acre farm with a maximum of 20 mares on it," Nichols recalls. But Sheikh Hamdan's quest to win the greatest racing prizes in the world prompted him to expand. Still, the operation's focus back then was mainly on English and European trophies, not American ones. And while Sheikh Hamdan purchased yearlings from American auctions and bred many more in Kentucky, he still sent many overseas to race. He had great success with those, winning the Arc de Triomphe (with Sakhee), the Epsom Derby twice (Nashwan and Erhaab), the Epsom Oaks (Snow Bride), the English 1000 Guineas twice (Shadayid and Harayir), English 2000 Guineas (Nashwan), Irish 1000 Guineas (Mehthaaf), and French 1000 Guineas (Ta Rib).

And the European racing program made sense on a personal level for a hands-on owner who likes to keep up with his horses' progress and has been known to give jockeys their prerace instructions himself.

"He lives in England, and he likes watching his horses race," McLaughlin said.

Sheikh Hamdan has had some notable stakes winners in North America before. Two fairly recent ones, Intidab and Kayrawan, scored in a total of four Grade 2 races. But both started their careers in England.

Sheikh Hamdan will likely always have a string in his adopted England, but it is clear that Americans can expect to see more Shadwell juveniles and 3-year-olds debuting in the States. Not just because of their potential stallion markets, either.

Sheikh Hamdan, who didn't attend the Belmont, came to his first Kentucky Derby this year, when Jazil ran fourth. What he saw there gave him another reason to concentrate on dirt racing. He was impressed by the crowd and its enthusiasm for the sport, Nichols said. Now, perhaps, he is getting a taste of why his younger brother is so eager to win America's most famous race.

That would be just fine with Nichols and McLaughlin, both of whom would be thrilled to see Shadwell colors in the Churchill Downs winner's circle on the first Saturday in May.

"It would be fabulous, because he's a great owner and a great man with a great team," McLaughlin said. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather win it for."