Years ago, before the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing had reached a truly global scale and before shipping horses around the world was a matter of simple routine, a young man — a budding horseman — would ride in bareback races across Jumeirah Beach in Dubai. He was far removed from the world-famous Thoroughbred racetracks in countries like England, France, and the United States, but that would not be the case for long. In the years to come, he would have an unmistakable impact on Thoroughbred horse racing, helping to usher the sport into a truly international era while simultaneously bringing Dubai into the spotlight.
His name is Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, but he is commonly known as Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai and vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.
For Sheikh Mohammed, horses and racing have long been a part of his life. While helping to build Dubai into an international center of business, trade, and tourism, Sheikh Mohammed has also been an active participant in two different horse racing sports — Thoroughbred racing and long-distance endurance racing. Sheikh Mohammed himself rode to victory in the 2012 Fédération Equestre Internationale World Endurance Championship, and in Thoroughbred racing, he has guided the creation of an international racing and breeding empire rivaled by few in history.
Sheikh Mohammed’s arrival in the sport was as swift as it was spectacular. On June 20, 1977, Sheikh Mohammed scored his first victory as an owner when Hatta — a future group stakes winner — won a race at Brighton. Four years later, Sheikh Mohammed purchased Dalham Hall Stud in England, which became the foundation of his international breeding operation Darley Stud; that same year, Sheikh Mohammed arrived in Kentucky for the Keeneland July yearling sale and became involved in a record-breaking bidding war with Robert Sangster of Coolmore Stud. The horse of interest was a son of Northern Dancer and a full brother to the champion Storm Bird, and while Sheikh Mohammed would be outbid by Sangster, he helped push the sale price to an astonishing $3.5 million, more the double the previous record price for a yearling.
However, Sheikh Mohammed did purchase another Northern Dancer foal for $3.3 million, and that colt—subsequently named Shareef Dancer—went on to win the prestigious Irish Derby, giving Sheikh Mohammed a classic winner and becoming a champion in the process.
Major auction purchases and major racing success would continue to dot the timeline of Sheikh Mohammed’s racing involvement throughout the 1980s. In 1983, with his eye on another son of Northern Dancer, Sheikh Mohammed once again confronted Robert Sangster in a bidding war and emerged victorious after raising the price to $10.2 million, a record-shattering sum that left the previous record of $4.25 million far behind. The purchase of Ireland’s Kildangan Stud in 1986 further expanded Sheikh Mohammed’s racing influence, while success on the track came from horses like Pebbles (winner of the 1984 English One Thousand Guineas and the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Turf) and In the Wings (a top-class multiple Group 1 winner who won the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Turf).
In 1992, Sheikh Mohammed took the unexpected step of transferring some of his horses to Dubai during the winter months, a move that would soon launch Dubai’s racing industry to international prominence. Two years later, Sheikh Mohammed would regroup his international racing interests under the name Godolphin Racing, and Godolphin’s famous blue silks have subsequently been seen in the winner’s circle at major racetracks across the globe.
Godolphin Racing has been particularly successful in Dubai, where the Nad Al Sheba and Meydan racecourses have provided racing opportunities throughout the winter, when most top courses in Europe are closed. Sheikh Mohammed was a driving force behind the creation of the Dubai World Cup Night in 1996, a rich and prestigious race meet that pits some of the best horses from around the world against each other in a series of major races. The highlight of the meet is the Dubai World Cup, which currently carries a purse of $10 million. The prestigious race annually attracts top horses from the United States and has been won by such famous horses as Cigar, Curlin, California Chrome, and Arrogate.
Through the years, Godolphin Racing has won the Dubai World Cup on eight occasions, with perhaps their most memorable victory coming in 2000 with Dubai Millennium. Described on the Godolphin website as “Godolphin’s greatest horse, and Sheikh Mohammed’s personal favorite,” Dubai Millennium was named with an eye on winning the 2000 Dubai World Cup, and the talented runner delivered on those high expectations to win the race by six lengths in the track-record time of 1:59.50.
Twenty-five years after the founding of Godolphin, and 40 years after Sheikh Mohammed’s first victory as an owner, Godolphin Racing continues to achieve unprecedented success on a global scale. The stable’s North American division won the Eclipse Award as outstanding owner in both 2009 and 2012, thanks in large part to the success of Grade 1 winners Vale of York, Music Note, Pyro, Gayego, Seventh Street, Vineyard Haven, Flashing, Alpha, Questing, Emcee, It’s Tricky, Dance Card, and Better Lucky. The British division has been named British Champion Owner four out of the last five years, while in Dubai, Godolphin has led all other owners at the Dubai World Cup Carnival for 10 straight years.
Sheikh Mohammed’s breeding empire remains strong as well, with divisions spread across the globe. A sampling of the Darley stallions currently based in the U.S. includes the Kentucky Derby winners Animal Kingdom, Nyquist, and Street Sense, as well as the top sires Bernardini and Medaglia d’Oro.
What does the future hold for Godolphin Racing? No one can say for sure, but continued success seems inevitable, and with a new European qualifying route to the Kentucky Derby having been established, it would come as no surprise if Sheikh Mohammed sets his sights on winning the Kentucky Derby, a long-standing goal that Godolphin Racing has yet to achieve.
In the meantime, the wins just keep coming.
- Godolphin Racing has won more than 250 Group/Grade 1 races around the world.
- Horses raced by Godolphin have won races in more than a dozen major racing nations, and the stable has horses in training in Australian, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, as well as Dubai during the winter months.
- The Darley branch of the Godolphin empire includes breeding farms in six different countries—Australia, France, Ireland, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- Since 2000, Godolphin Racing has won 96 graded stakes races in North America, including 50 Grade 1 events.
- Godolphin Racing has won five Breeders’ Cup races with Daylami (1999 Breeders’ Cup Turf), Fantastic Light (2001 Breeders’ Cup Turf), Outstrip (2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf), Tempera (2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies), and Vale of York (2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile).
- Sheikh Mohammed also won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in partnership with Allen Paulson with Arazi in 1991 and the Breeders’ Cup Mile with Barathea in 1994 in partnership with Gerald Leigh.
- Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley U.S. operation won the Eclipse Award as co-outstanding owner in 2006 (with Lael Stables) and outstanding breeder in 2012.