Donn's Articles » Godolphin


When it was confirmed last Saturday that Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation had purchased the Jessica Harrington-trained Long Lashes, impressive winner of a listed race at The Curragh last month on her racecourse debut, it brought to four the number of high profile equine acquisitions that Godolphin had made in as many weeks. More than that, however, it brought into focus the continuing need that Godolphin seem to have to bolster its ranks by buying in proven talent, some 15 years after its inception.

When Sheikh Mohammed established Godolphin in 1994, it was a streamlined operation that specialised in quality, a select group of high class horses targeting the top class races. When you saw a horse racing in Godolphin blue, you could have been almost certain that you were watching a top class race. It was the badge of quality.

The idea was to have the horses spend the off-season in the Dubai sun, spare them from the cold and the damp dark winter months of Western Europe, then bring them over to their base in Newmarket from where they could plan their assault on the top prizes in Europe. It was an idea that was, somewhat ironically, pioneered by Vincent O’Brien, who had Sir Ivor spend the winter of 1967 in Pisa in northern Italy before bringing him back and preparing him to win the Guineas and the Derby.

Success was instant. In 1994, with Hilal Ibrahim’s name on the trainer’s licence and Jeremy Noseda as his assistant, the Godolphin filly Balanchine won the Oaks and followed up in the Irish Derby. Saeed Bin Suroor replaced Ibrahim in 1995 and Tom Albertrani, Bill Mott’s former assistant, replaced Noseda when he went out on his own in 1996, but still the success continued. Moonshell won the Oaks in 1995, one of 12 Group 1 winners worldwide for the fledgling operation that year.

The three-year-olds continued to hit the board in the Classics in those early years. Mark Of Esteem won the 2000 Guineas in 1996, Cape Verdi won the 1000 Guineas in 1998 and started favourite for the Derby, Island Sands won the 2000 Guineas in 1999, Kazzia won the Guineas and the Oaks in 2002.

The older horses fared just as well. Daylami was acquired for racing from the Aga Khan, but the grey continued to progress after he traded green for blue, winning six Group/Grade 1 contests, his racing career culminating in victory in the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Turf. Fantastic Light and Halling and Dubai Millennium and their ilk followed, and Saeed Bin Suroor was champion trainer in the UK in 1996, 1998 and 1999.

That level of success at the highest level has tailed off alarmingly in recent years, slowing from a rush to a trickle, and the streamlining, the focus exclusively on the top end of the quality tree, is gone. The rifle has been replaced by a blunderbuss. You don’t rub your eyes any more when you see a Godolphin horse running in a handicap – it is now the norm.

More than that, however, the self-sufficiency towards which Godolphin appeared to be on an inexorable march at the start of the millennium seems to be further away than ever now. Reliance on the hired help, the purchase as opposed to the creation of high class racehorses, is more potent now than it has ever been. The indigenous breeding operation and the purchasing of yearlings and untried horses just doesn’t seem to be able to supply the horses that Godolphin needs in order to be successful at the highest level.

The flying start that it appeared the Godolphin horses used to get as a result of a winter spent basking in warm climes has dissipated. Indeed, you could easily use recent results to argue that it is a disadvantage, as the migrators take time to re-acclimatise to the British spring. The boys in blue haven’t won any of the first four British Classics in seven years. This year, the best they could muster was Kite Wood’s ninth placing in the Derby.

Royal Ascot 2009 wasn’t at all bad. A lot of the Godolphin horses ran well, but their headline horse, Gladiatorus, flunked in their headline race, the Queen Anne, a race that Godolphin have won seven times in the last 13 years. They didn’t get close in any of the Group 1s and while their sole winner, Flying Cloud, looked good in landing the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes, ill-luck has struck again, and her injury means that we won’t see her again until September at the earliest.

The horses are generally in good form of late. Saeed Bin Surour had had 12 winners from 33 runners in the two weeks up to last Friday, giving him an impressive strike rate of 36%. However, Kite Wood’s win in the Group 3 Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket’s July meeting last week was the only Group race victory among the 12, and still Godolphin await their first Group 1 success of the season.

It is difficult to know to what the downturn in success at the highest level is ultimately attributable. Perhaps the decision to ignore all yearlings by Coolmore stallions at the public sales – by definition a public decision – has had a more long-reaching effect than originally foreseen. Fortunately for the Darley operation, such rigidity doesn’t seem to be at play when it comes to sourcing new stallions. Of course Cape Cross is the star turn this season, a son of Green Desert, but of the other seven Darley stallions who stand at a published fee of €20,000 or more, four are by Coolmore stallions.

Perhaps Tom Albertrani and Jeremy Noseda before him had more of an influence than was originally appreciated. It is true that in the year that followed Albertrani’s departure, 2004, Saeed Bin Surour was champion trainer in the UK, but it was the following year that the downturn at the top level seems to have begun. From 18 Group 1 winners worldwide in 1999, 11 in 2000, 15 in 2001 and 16 in 2002, Godolphin had just eight Group 1 winners worldwide last year, just one of them in Europe, and they haven’t managed to get into double figures since 2004.

In the 2007 Dewhurst Stakes, only one of the 10 horses, Rio De La Plata, raced in Godolphin blue. By the start of the 2008 season, however, Sheikh Mohammed effectively owned all or part of six of the first seven home in the race. Of those six horses, two of them went on to achieve superstar status the following season while the other four floundered. Those two horses were New Approach and Raven’s Pass, the only two that weren’t transferred to Godolphin and were instead left with their respective trainers, Jim Bolger and John Gosden, for their three-year-old season.

The two Sheikh Mohammed horses who are highest in the betting for the Arc de Triomphe, Cavalryman and Cutlass Bay, are both trained by Andre Fabre. Cavalryman landed the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris last Tuesday for Fabre. By contrast, Creachadoir’s win in the 2008 Lockinge Stakes remains the only Group 1 contest that Godolphin have landed in Europe since the end of the 2007 season.

It is important that Godolphin succeed for a multitude of reasons. It is important that Sheikh Mohammed earns the reward on the racecourse that his investment in the sport deserves. There are a whole host of things that a rich man can do with his money, and the sport of horse racing can pinch itself a million times in the realisation that Sheikh Mohammed has chosen to invest some of his in racing.

But something has gone amiss somewhere with the Godolphin model. It needs urgent attention before the brand is sullied beyond repair.

© The Sunday Times, 19th July 2009