Flat racing is traditionally known as the Sport of Kings, but given the success enjoyed by the ruling family of Dubai over the last 20 years it could just as accurately be described as the Sport of Sheikhs.
Since establishing themselves as a major force in the early 1980s, the Maktoums have grown to dominate European Flat racing and have won every major prize, many of them on several occasions.
Their influence now stretches worldwide, and Sulamani’s victory in the Arlington Million in Chicago was their 100th at Group One or Grade One level.
But it has not been merely a case of basking in the glory and letting the trainers, jockeys and stable staff do the hard work as HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his brothers introduced a radical new concept of preparing horses for the top events.
Under the Godolphin banner, which has become famous across the world, they decided to hand-pick the best horses owned by members of the family and transport them to Al Quoz stables in the warm climate of Dubai to be trained during the British winter.
With the sun on their back, this meant that under the guidance of trainer Saeed bin Suroor they could remain in good condition, keep fit and not suffer from an interrupted preparation caused by adverse weather before returning to Newmarket in the spring.
“Sheikh Mohammed had been keen for a long time to build up Dubai as a centre of racing excellence and also wanted a more hands-on role in the training of his horses,” explained a Godolphin spokesperson.
“He took some of his leading English trainers to Dubai and said he was thinking of training some of his horses there. One or two of the trainers laughed and said ‘what would you feed the horses – sand?’ But that simply made him more determined to go ahead with the plan.
“His brothers Sheikh Hamdan and Sheikh Maktoum were also very much in favour. They all work together as a family, support each other and are involved in making the decisions. They all provide horses to Godolphin and see it very much as their flagship racing project.”
After the idea was implemented for the 1993-94 winter, the results were immediate and dramatic. The first big success story was Balanchine, a filly who had been purchased from top British owner-breeder Robert Sangster.
Balanchine lined up for what in 1994 was the first Classic of the season, the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket, and having been sunning herself in the Middle East while her rivals had endured a freezing English winter, she looked head and shoulders above the rest in the paddock before the race. And she did not disappoint on the track either, running a blinder before being beaten the shortest of heads – ironically by Sangster’s Las Meninas.
But it took only another a month for Balanchine to taste Classic success, romping home in the Oaks under Frankie Dettori before taking on and beating the colts in the Irish Derby. The Godolphin dream had become a reality and was bearing fruit.
The following year they tasted victory in the blue riband of British racing, the Derby, with a horse that defied all conventions.
As a two-year-old, Lammtarra won his only race when in the care of trainer Alex Scott, who tragically was shot dead only weeks later. The colt spent the winter in Dubai, but at one stage it looked as though any thoughts of him being a Classic winner would have to be forgotten.
Lammtarra became very ill but was nursed back to health and on Derby day, in the green and white colours of Saeed Maktoum Al Maktoum, he produced an incredible performance to fly up the home straight from a position well down the field and catch Sheikh Mohammed’s Tamure just before the winning post, breaking the race record by one and a half seconds.
He also won both his subsequent races, the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Since then, many more horses have trodden the same well-worn path to big-race glory, and Godolphin’s blue silks have been carried to victory across the globe, with the accent firmly on quality.
Dubai is ideally located for travel anywhere in the world, to America, Europe, the Far East or Australia, all of which stage races high on the priority list for those who covet the premier prizes.
However, there is no travelling involved at the end of March when the Godolphin horses are guaranteed to be in top shape for the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba.
In fact Godolphin horses have won four of the last five runnings of the £4.5million spectacular.
“People in Britain don’t always appreciate that England is not the sole focus of Godolphin,” said their spokesperson.
“Sheikh Mohammed’s vision for Godolphin was to broaden horizons, compete in the best races all over the world and to show it could be done from Dubai. He always felt the potential was there to do that.”
America has become a place of particular interest to Godolphin. Not content with targeting the prestigious Breeders’ Cup meeting each October as well as the Triple Crown spearheaded by the Kentucky Derby, they now try to win races there throughout the year.
A team of two-year-olds and older horses is based in the United States for that purpose.
“There are three races Sheikh Mohammed is extremely keen to win – the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Melbourne Cup,” said the Godolphin spokesperson.
“We have gone close in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Swain and Sakhee, and in the Melbourne Cup with Central Park, Give The Slip and Beekeeper and are always looking for horses that can contest them, even buying horses that look tailor-made for them if necessary.”
With the likes of Moon Ballad, Sulamani and Dubai Destination at their disposal, Godolphin had ammunition for this year’s major prizes world-wide.
And with the structure in place for future success, nobody should bet against Godolphin reigning over the Sport of Kings for many decades to come.