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Princess Zahra Aga Khan

Q. How do you greet a princess?

a. Bow
b. Courtesy
c. Genuflect
d. Bumble something about being delighted to meet her, about how splendid the place is, and shake her hand

Princess Zahra Aga Khan rubs Darjina’s nose. She loves Darjina, just back from running her heart out to get to within a head of landing the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot. She’s such a lovely filly, so gentle, a demeanour that is not inconsistent with the sense of calm that pervades around Chemin des Aigles, resplendent in the Chantilly sun. Our hostess herself is relaxed, no sceptre, no tiara, even princesses wear jeans.

“What should I call you?” I ask.

“Zahra,” she says simply.

“Princess Zahra?”

“If you want, but Zahra is fine.”

The office is a history lesson in the thoroughbred racehorse, steeped in portraits of great Aga Khan horses. There were always horses around when Zahra was growing up. The family used to live in a house in the town that was in the middle of the stable yard, so she was surrounded by the yard, regularly awakened by the clip-clop of hoof on ground, able to live the daily life of the horse. She attended her first race meeting in France when she was five, but she was too young to go to Epsom to watch Blushing Groom take on The Minstrel and Hot Grove in the Derby.

That was in the summer of 1977. Zahra was not yet seven years old. Blushing Groom had been champion two-year-old in France the previous season and had won the Poule d’Essaie des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) already as a three-year-old, but the step up to a mile and a half for the Derby was a step into the unknown.

“I remember listening to the race on the radio with my granny,” recalls Zahra. “That was great, through the static, we came in third. It was very exciting.”

It was racing that attracted her in the beginning. The breeding side of the operation came later.

“I only really became involved in breeding in 1999,” she says. “I was interested. I was always interested in the racing side, and this was a case of ‘You’re going to do this’.”

Laughs at the recollection. ‘I am?!’

“In the first few years, Dad sat through all the breeding meetings, I mean hours and hours, going over every family, every mare, his huge memory of these families going back five or six generations, pointing out weaknesses or strengths of the family, and characteristics that you would look for, and then going back through all the stallions and all the in-breedings. So, in a way, he gave us a crash course in breeding.”

In 1996, she asked her father if she could declare her colours. He said that she could choose a three-year-old filly in France and a three-year-old filly in Ireland.

“I purposely went and picked fillies that had a hope of winning a race but who didn’t really have a chance of being champions,” she says, “because I didn’t want to detract from the family stock. One of those fillies was Daralbayda, who became the mother of Darinska who is the mother of Darjina.”

The success didn’t end there. In 2000, Zahra again picked a filly in France and a filly in Ireland. The French filly was Mandalara, who was covered by a relatively inexpensive stallion, Desert Style, and produced Mandesha, triple Group 1 winner and runner-up to Peeping Fawn in the Nassau Stakes last year. But Zahra’s undoubted Midas touch has not been without its reverses.

“Of course, you know the story of Mandalara,” she says a little sheepishly. “We sold her for €16,000 and she was ultimately bought for €1.7 million! It’s not an exact science.”

Q. What constitutes a normal childhood?
a. Climbing trees and playing tip-the-can
b. Waiting for the school bus in the pouring rain
c. Playing on the beach, coming home sun-burned and being thrown in the bath along with six other kids
d. Being schooled first at home, then in Paris, then in Geneva before completing your Baccalauréat at the world-renowned Institut le Rosey

Princess Zahra was home-schooled until she was 11. She went to school in Paris for a year, then moved school when the family moved to Geneva in 1982, and completed her secondary education at Institut le Rosey, also in Geneva, where she did her French Baccalaur̩at. Although her first language is English, she was schooled through French РEnglish at home, French at school Рall of which stood to her well when she went to Harvard to pursue Third World Development Studies. It was the same educational path that her father had followed before her.

“Rosey was a great school,” she recalls. “I made some great friends there, friends for life. It is a small school, it only has about 500 students, but there were kids from all over the world there, which was ironic because we lived just about a half an hour away.”

The ethos of Rosey is to provide students with a well-rounded education in all walks of life, and that was what Zahra received. She played sports and she was on the Rosey ski team before an encounter with a slalom pole ended that pursuit. Zahra’s two brothers, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain, both went to school in the States, but she stayed in Geneva. She liked it there. She liked Geneva, she liked living with her mum there.

Her pursuit of Third World Development Studies at Harvard was well thought out. When she was 13, she had had a conversation with her father in advance of choosing her Baccalauréat subjects, and he had suggested that it would be useful for her to know something about education and healthcare in developing countries. She knew that that was the area in which she would be working in the family business, so it made sense to specialise in it at undergraduate level.

Under the American system, she was allowed do a Special Concentration, so she was able to pick different modules at Harvard and effectively design her own programme, Tropical Medicine in Africa, the History of Africa, Development Economics, the History of Asia, Politics, areas of which a thorough understanding is essential for her chosen career path.

Princess Zahra is now Director of the Social Welfare Department at her father’s Secretariat, as well as holding responsibility for the social development institutions Education, Health, Planning and Building of the Aga Khan Development Network, whose role, with a budget of $300 million, is to work towards social, cultural and economic development in Africa and Asia. The Social Welfare Department brings more than 300 schools, 200 health centres and eight hospitals under one umbrella, as well as habitat programmes like housing, earthquake resilience, water and sanitation, risk assessment.

The spectrum of areas in which the Department is engaged is vast. In the 300 schools, for example, they teach in 15 different languages, they work in 14 different countries, countries like Bangladesh, Tanzania, Uganda, Madagascar, Syria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“My father’s vision is so huge,” says Zahra, “that just trying to get a handle on some of it and trying to help a little bit in one area is quite challenging. But we have amazing staff in the field, and very committed volunteers at all levels. The system has been around for ages, our oldest school is more than 100 years old. But however big the Network is, it is still a small private network of institutions. We always try to work as a best practice model which will complement the government system. We don’t try to replace the government system.”

Q. Is the Goffs Millions a good idea?
a. Yes
b. No
c. Don’t know
d. Apparently so

HH The Aga Khan, not a renowned purchaser of yearlings, bought Four Sins at the Goffs Million sale of 2005. While the filly did run in the Million race the following September, however, she wasn’t specifically bought for that purpose. She was a daughter of Sinndar, who carried the green silks with red epaulettes with such distinction at the turn of the millennium, from a good German family, so she was attractive to the breeder.

“I would be coming at the yearling sales from a seller’s perspective,” says Zahra, “so I don’t know what it feels like to go to the sales with the intention of buying a horse to win a million euro race, but I assume it would be a draw. It certainly seems to have been a success.”

HH The Aga Khan increased his shareholding in Goffs recently, a move that is part of an overall development plan.

“HH’s plan with the Goffs shareholding and Doncaster and Arqana is to create a logical whole, and develop a strong business” she says, “and I think it is heading in that direction. There is that emphasis on quality, and in ensuring that the catalogues maintain a sense of quality. These are exciting times.”

© Goffs Magazine, September 2008