Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and builder of a global Thoroughbred empire, has won nearly all of the world's major races -- but not the Kentucky Derby.
Over the last decade, the sheikh has tried to win the Derby by shipping his horses in from Dubai, but this time, he's employed a different strategy. He kept his current Derby hopeful, Alpha, stateside all winter with original trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
The sheikh and his connections are hopeful this is the year they break through.
"Our brief is to compete in as many premier international races as possible," said Simon Crisford, racing manager of the sheikh's Godolphin operation.
"It goes without saying that the Kentucky Derby is one of the world's greatest races, and we absolutely recognize the historic importance and prestige attached to the 'Run for the Roses.' It is one of the few races in the world that captures the public's imagination and puts our sport on the front pages."
While Sheikh Mohammed is enthusiastically involved in a wide range of endeavors, all have a unifying theme: ardent pride in his heritage. That is the thread that connects everything - from his ambitious development projects in Dubai, to his passion for composing Arabic poetry, and his love for the horse, perhaps the most cherished symbol and legacy of his culture.
"A love for horses runs in my blood," Sheikh Mohammed has said. "Don't forget that horses have been bred for centuries by Arabic tribes, they were used for hunting and fighting and they symbolize our history. Horse riding is more than merely sitting on a horse's back. It is nobility and chivalry."
His commitment to Thoroughbred racing was sparked when he was a student in England. The sport was a frequent topic of conversation with his host family at Cambridge, and the sheikh went to historic Newmarket to see one of the British classics, the Two Thousand Guineas, in 1967.
Little could his British hosts have known that their young guest, and his family, would go on to exert an overwhelming influence on the worldwide racing scene. Sheikh Mohammed's first winner came in England in 1977, and in the ensuing decades, he and his Maktoum brothers would spend fortunes in amassing legions of royally-bred prospects around the globe.
As Sheikh Mohammed likes to point out, the Thoroughbred's origins lie in the deserts of the Middle East, where the breed's foundation sires were born. Exported to the British Isles in the 17th and 18th centuries, these stallions were crossed with the local mares, producing an outstanding hybrid with the best qualities of both -- the Thoroughbred.
Sheikh Mohammed pays tribute to two of these founding progenitors, the Darley Arabian and Godolphin Arabian, by naming his breeding and racing operations in their honor. The Darley banner came first. Aside from some runners on the track, Darley includes the sheikh's far-flung stud farms in England, Ireland, France, the United States, Australia and Japan.
Godolphin made its first big splash on the world stage in 1994, when champion filly Balanchine captured the Epsom Oaks and defeated males in the Irish Derby. Her success proved that one could plunder the European classics after wintering in Dubai.
Since then, the famous royal blue silks have fanned out everywhere. Godolphin runners have landed 185 top-level prizes in 12 countries.
As Godolphin was becoming a roving ambassador for Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed was also remaking the emirate into a winter racing showcase. He created the world's richest race, the Dubai World Cup, to lure outstanding horses from across the globe. First run in 1996, the Dubai World Cup is now worth $10 million, and anchors the world's most lucrative race day, supported by several seven-figure events.
Viewed in the context of Godolphin's mission and Dubai's growth, it's no surprise that Sheikh Mohammed has desired to win the Kentucky Derby by way of Dubai. Although that strategy has worked for the European classics, it has failed at Churchill Downs.
Godolphin first attempted to win the Derby in 1999 with Worldly Manner, who was privately purchased in the fall of his juvenile campaign. Worldly Manner was transferred from Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert to Godolphin's trainer Saeed bin Suroor in Dubai, where he limbered up in a trial, not an official race. He finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby.
The pattern became familiar. Godolphin's best hopes would leave their U.S. trainers, and run well for bin Suroor in Dubai, only to falter when returning for the Derby: Express Tour (eighth in 2001), Essence of Dubai (ninth in 2002) and Regal Ransom and Desert Party (the respective eighth and 14th in 2009).
Godolphin is hardly alone in the international shippers category. Indeed, in 137 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, only one horse has shipped in from abroad to win -- the Venezuelan-based Canonero II in 1971.
Over the past 40 years, globalization has made its mark on the Derby, as with so many other facets of life. Horses have come from Europe and as far afield as Japan to try the Derby, without success. Among these are the Irish invaders representing Coolmore, Sheikh Mohammed's archrivals on the world stage. Coolmore's principal trainer, Aidan O'Brien, has failed with Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo (2002) and Master of Hounds (2011), and launches another transatlantic raid with Daddy Long Legs this year.
Interestingly, one of the Coolmore partners, Michael Tabor, has already won the Derby, but with an American-based horse in Thunder Gulch (1995). Since then, other foreign owners have lifted the Derby trophy with exclusively American-raced horses, such as Japan's Fusao Sekiguchi (Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000) and Saudi Arabia's late Prince Ahmed bin Salman (War Emblem in 2002).
Sheikh Mohammed is following this path with Alpha. Although he wouldn't achieve the coveted Dubai-to-Kentucky glory, the homebred Alpha would still be a triumph for the sheikh's breeding operation. He is by another homebred in champion Bernardini, now a hot young sire for Darley, and he hails from a female line that has been in the Maktoum fold for more than 25 years.
Alpha immediately validated the decision to race him in the United States. A six-length winner in his debut at the ultra-competitive Saratoga meeting, he finished second to Union Rags in the Champagne Stakes. Alpha acted up in the gate prior to a disappointing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, his final start of 2011.
In years past, Alpha would have been uprooted from McLaughlin and transplanted to Dubai to prepare for the Derby. But this time, the decision was made to keep the sheikh's bright prospect at home.
A key factor was the composition of Dubai's Meydan track. Unlike old Nad al Sheba, which had a traditional dirt surface, Meydan has a synthetic track (Tapeta) and the Godolphin team preferred to keep Alpha on the dirt.
"We felt that it would be more beneficial for Alpha to remain in the U.S. last winter," Crisford said.
"Meydan, as you know, now has an artificial surface, so we felt that by leaving Alpha in the U.S. to train and race on dirt tracks during the winter would be better for him.
"However, if we have the 'right' horse that we feel might be adept on either artificial or dirt surfaces, then we will potentially winter them in Dubai again.
"It totally depends on each individual horse, and final decisions are made following discussions with our American trainers and our North American Manager, Jimmy Bell."
Alpha prospered over the winter, rolling to impressive victories in the Count Fleet and Withers at Aqueduct. He missed narrowly to Gemologist after a troubled trip in the Wood Memorial, and will try to go one better in Louisville.
A horse named Alpha would be a fitting first Derby winner for Sheikh Mohammed, who always wants to lead the way.