With the Queen having commented on the “very sombre national mood” just three days before attending Royal Ascot’s opening day for the 64th year running, the results of the races at Flat racing’s most famous meeting will seem more inconsequential than ever in the wider scheme. Doubly so when it comes to the successes and failures of a bloodstock operation that can afford to fund 700 thoroughbred horses in training around the world.
A good Ascot is not Sheikh Mohammed’s primary focus at present, either. The ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates will be more concerned with the continuing diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, where the UAE is part of Saudi-led coalition imposing a blockade on Qatar. The Sheikh has ploughed more money into racing and breeding than any owner the sport has seen, but the Royal meeting is likely to offer him, at best, some light relief from events at home.
Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin organisation, however, does not differ from other bloodstock operations simply in its size. Godolphin is an extension of its founder’s power, authority and status. It was conceived to promote Dubai around the world, as a destination, a business hub and a power on the world stage. As the All Blacks are to New Zealand and rugby, so Godolphin’s royal blue silks should be to Dubai and international Flat racing.
But to do that, Godolphin needs to be the best, the sport’s dominant force from one season to the next. And for too long now, it has been second best, if that. John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud syndicate has beaten them again and again on racecourses in Britain, Ireland and around the world. An alliance between a brilliant horseman and breeder from County Tipperary, two ex-bookies from Britain and one of the finest of all trainers in Aidan O’Brien has trounced the sovereign wealth of a nation.
It is 13 years since Godolphin last enjoyed what could be fairly described as a really good Royal Ascot. When the lightly raced Papineau capped a six-winner meeting for the royal blue colours with victory in the 2004 Gold Cup, there was talk of running him in the King George a month later, and a sense that Godolphin was returning to the pre-eminence of its late 1990s pomp.
As it turned out, Papineau suffered an injury, did not run again for 10 months and failed to register another win in two subsequent starts. And, with hindsight, it is clear that the seeds of Coolmore’s future success had already been sown. The first crop of foals sired by Coolmore’s 2001 Derby winner Galileo, Europe’s dominant stallion for the last decade, were a few months away from their debut on the track. Godolphin has been playing catch-up ever since.
They have tried various schemes to reassert their superiority. In the early days, most of their horses spent the winter in Dubai, enjoying the warm sun with the tourists who are so vital to Dubai’s economy. These days, the majority of their 750 thoroughbreds stay put around the world. Once, almost every Godolphin horse in Europe ran for a single trainer, Saeed bin-Suroor. Promising juveniles and big-money purchases from other owners were moved to the main stable, which was a factor in the Sheikh’s famous falling-out with the late Sir Henry Cecil.
Then, Godolphin moved to running two huge Newmarket stables, such was their strength in numbers. The job as trainer at their new yard, Moulton Paddocks, went to an affable, ambitious young man from Dubai called Mahmood al-Zarooni. Three years and one existential steroid-doping scandal later, it was time to think again. Godolphin still has two exclusive stables but, crucially, other horses scattered around yards in Britain and Ireland.
Two of those “outside” horses, Ribchester and Barney Roy, are strongly fancied for Group One races on the opening card at Ascot on Tuesday. Ribchester, who is trained by Richard Fahey in Yorkshire, is odds-on for the Queen Anne Stakes, while Barney Roy, who is stabled in Wiltshire with Richard Hannon, is the main threat to Coolmore’s Classic-winning colt Churchill in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
There is another Coolmore-Godolphin head-to-head later in the week, when Harry Angel and Blue Point will take on O’Brien’s Carvaggio, a brilliant winner on Royal Ascot’s opening day last year, in the Commonwealth Cup. There will be many other fancied runners in royal blue too, such as Dream Castle in the Jersey, Laugh Aloud in the Duke Of Cambridge Stakes and Jack Hobbs in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, Wednesday’s feature event.
And yet, for all its strength on paper, Godolphin is not so much striding towards the Royal meeting, as lurching. Three runners that offered a fair chance of a first Derby winner in Godolphin blue finished unplaced at Epsom earlier this month. Shortly afterwards, internal tensions erupted in public, when Suroor was quoted in the Racing Post making very direct, and seemingly calculated, criticisms of John Ferguson, Godolphin’s chief executive.
Ferguson had been one of Sheikh Mohammed’s most trusted advisors and lieutenants from his earliest times in the sport, but within a couple of days, he was gone. His replacement at the helm, for the moment at least, is Joe Osborne, another long-serving employee from the breeding arm of the Sheikh’s operation. If ever Godolphin has needed a good Royal Ascot, it needs one now to relaunch and reboot: switch it off, and then switch it on again, with a run of success for royal blue throughout the week.
Sheikh Mohammed himself will be only too well aware that a good Royal meeting for Godolphin will bring problems of its own. Ribchester and Barney Roy, for instance, are both milers, and would be expected to head to Glorious Goodwood’s Sussex Stakes if they win this week. But that race, and meeting, are sponsored by Qatar, from the other side of the barricades in the Gulf. Anyone in Dubai who expresses “sympathy” for Qatar now faces a jail term of up to 15 years. It will be difficult, to say the least, for the Sheikh to send his horses to an event that promotes Dubai’s current regional rival.
It is another reminder of the essential insignificance of this week’s events at Ascot: horses running around a field in Berkshire, to entertain what looks like the world’s largest wedding reception. But if it is a distraction too, albeit briefly, the Queen is not the only one who will be grateful for that.