Winning major horse races around the world is the lifeblood of Godolphin, and there’s none bigger than the Kentucky Derby.
Getting his hands on the gold winner’s trophy on the first Saturday in May has been a decades-long quest for Godolphin founder Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister and a vice president of the hereditarily ruled United Arab Emirates.
“It’s such an elusive place to get to," said Jimmy Bell, who runs Godolphin's U.S. operations.
Horses owned by the Maktoum family have won many of the world’s other famous races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Epsom Derby, Melbourne Cup, Prix de l’arc de Triomphe, and the Dubai World Cup, a $12 million race he invented.
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Still, the Derby has eluded the 71-year-old sheikh and his brothers, but certainly not for a lack of trying. Godolphin is 0-for-11, having made its first attempt in 1999.
Its next chance comes Saturday at Churchill Downs with undefeated Essential Quality. Bred and owned by the sheikh, the gray colt has already earned over $2.2 million and is the top points qualifier for the 147th Derby. He's expected to be the early favorite in a likely full field of 20 horses.
“It would be the biggest accomplishment,” said Brad Cox, who would become the first Louisville-born trainer to win the race. “It's been a real honor to train for such a global empire and to have a horse like this.”
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Based in Dubai, Godolphin operates in Australia, Britain, France, Ireland, Japan and has six farms in Kentucky.
The amount of time and money the Maktoum family has invested in each attempt confirms their passion. Their last four Derby runners have been homebreds, which are horses bred and raced by the current owner.
Homebreds have won the Derby 64 times, including 10 of the last 17 years.
“They’re a classy organization that obviously is dealing with some high-end bloodstock, some of the best bloodlines in the world," Cox said.
Kiaran McLaughlin worked for the Maktoums in the UAE from 1993-2003. He trained three of their Derby runners, including Frosted, Godolphin’s highest-placing finisher who was fourth behind eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.
“They've built up a fabulous breeding operation. They have the best sires going to the best mares. A lot of thought is put into each mating,” McLaughlin said by phone from New York. “The approach to do it is about the horse. If the horse got real good in Dubai or somewhere else, they would try to bring them to win the Derby.”
Six of the Maktoums' Derby horses were guided by Godolphin’s head trainer, Saeed bin Suroor. Born in Dubai, he has spent much of his career supervising the stable’s operations at Newmarket, England.
Besides Cox and McLaughlin, the family has tried to win with American trainers before. Doug Watson, McLaughlin's former assistant, trained another of the sheikh’s Derby entries, as did Ireland-born and U.S.-based Eoin Harty.
McLaughlin retired from training last year to become a jockey agent. But he has a tie to Saturday's Derby, having gotten Luis Saez the ride aboard Essential Quality.
“Everybody wants to win the Kentucky Derby, but I don’t think anyone deserves it more than Sheik Mohammed because he has put so much into the game and not just money,” McLaughlin said.
Sheikh Mohammed's passion for horses began as a young man who rode bareback races with his friends on the beach in Dubai. While studying at Cambridge, he attended the races for the first time at Newmarket in 1967. Ten years later, he earned his first victory with a filly named Hatta at Brighton, England.
“Sheikh Mohammed actually rides in endurance races,” McLaughlin said.
Patience may be one of the sheikh's greatest traits.
"He's first of all an astute horseman and understands it probably better than we do. He is so philosophical,” Bell said. “If it’s meant to be, it will happen in time. He makes it very easy because he’s so understanding and has such a great outlook on things.”
Sheikh Mohammad isn't the only royalty involved in this year's Derby. Cox also trains Mandaloun, a homebred for Juddmonte Farms, which was owned by Saudi Prince Khalid bin Abdullah until his death in January at age 83.
Juddmonte earned its lone victory in a Triple Crown race in 2003, when Empire Maker won the Belmont Stakes. It is 0-for-5 in the Derby, finishing second twice.
Sheikh Mohammed experienced his own loss in March, when his brother, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, died at 75. He was an influential horse owner and breeder in his own right, having founded Shadwell Racing in England, in the 1980s. Horses bred there have won over 50 Group 1 races in Europe.
To win the Derby this year in particular would be especially meaningful to the sheikh, who isn't expected to attend.
“Make no mistake, the first Saturday in May is a big deal,” Bell said. “We’re just grateful to be on the road with a horse we think could be very competitive and to be a homebred on top of that, we’re pretty tickled.”
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