No holds barred in battle for racecourse supremacy between turf superpowers
Julian Muscat on the Coolmore/Godolphin rivalry that shapes contemporary racing
Earlier this year the Racing Post celebrated racing's game changers in a week-long series, culminating in the industry-shaping rivalry between superpowers John Magnier and Sheikh Mohammed – a tale that took another twist at this week's Goffs Orby sale.
First published Sunday, May 28, 2017
In the early 1980s it became evident that the future of racing in Europe would be shaped by one of two distinct entities. The seminal moment in this duel for turf supremacy came on a balmy night in Kentucky in July 1983.
Shortly before 11pm the Coolmore syndicate headed by Robert Sangster, and with John Magnier in its midst, gathered in the auction ring at Keeneland. Sheikh Mohammed and his entourage stood nearby. Both parties knew they were about to lock horns over the most highly prized lot, a yearling colt by Northern Dancer out of champion racemare My Bupers.
It came at the apex of a boom in bloodstock values that had been fuelled by both camps. Sangster’s Coolmore team had made fortunes through buying yearlings in the US that had excelled on the racetrack. Alleged and The Minstrel emerged from their early forays; they would be supplemented by the likes of Caerleon, El Gran Senor, Golden Fleece, Lomond and Storm Bird.
Most of them were by Northern Dancer and his sons. The Coolmore clan – which included the incomparable Vincent O’Brien, who preceded Aidan (no relation) at Ballydoyle – was largely responsible for making Northern Dancer the world’s most sought-after stallion. So when this particular yearling colt entered the sales ring, the Coolmore team felt distinctly proprietorial over him.
The Dubai prince was rapidly building a powerful racing presence in Europe. Two years earlier he had outbid the Coolmore syndicate at $3.3 million for Shareef Dancer. And like everyone else at Keeneland that day, he was smitten by the yearling in the spitting image of his acclaimed sire. The unstoppable force was about to collide with the immovable object.
An opening bid of $1 million was requested and granted, after which bidding on the colt rose steeply. The world-record price for a yearling, matched the previous day when Coolmore outbid the sheikh for another Northern Dancer colt at $4.25 million, was left behind in no time. At $10 million, the sheikh was asked for another $200,000. His representative nodded, and the horse was his.
Sangster and his partners returned to Keneland two years later to bid $13.1 million for a son of Nijinsky they would name Seattle Dancer, but it was a last, desperate lunge in the fading light. Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers were in an entirely different financial league, and the seeds were thus sown from which the Maktoums would dominate racing in Britain for the next 15 years.
The landmark $10.2 million colt would be called Snaafi Dancer. His sale is vividly described in the book Horsetrader, by Patrick Robinson and Nick Robinson, the latter an associate of Sangster who went on to establish the Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds syndicate.
Horsetrader portrays how Sangster subsequently realigned his strategy around his homebred horses. He became a seller, rather than a buyer. He also focused more of his operation in Australia, where Sheikh Mohammed was not so heavily committed. Competing against him was folly. For 15 years from 1985, the only individual to prevent Sheikh Mohammed from topping the British owners’ charts was his brother, Sheikh Hamdan Al-Maktoum.
There seemed no end to this hegemony. Sheikh Mohammed raced a galaxy of stars, plundering Classics and Group 1 races almost at will. He spread his horses around the training elite, and he had so many that million-dollar yearlings would often turn up at places like Yarmouth and Nottingham to break their maiden.
Magnier and his allies initially stood toe to toe with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stable on the racecourse. Their duel for supremacy reached its apogee in 2001, when Galileo and Fantastic Light traded verdicts in epic renewals of the King George and Irish Champion Stakes. Ever since then, Magnier’s syndicate has held the upper hand against a Dubaian juggernaut that had once seemed unstoppable.
The game had never been played for such high stakes. A barometer of the level of investment started by Sangster’s Coolmore syndicate – and taken forward by Sheikh Mohammed – is evident in average prices at the world’s flagship yearling sales. In the ten-year period from 1975, the average at Keeneland’s July Selected Yearling Sales rocketed from $53,000 to more than $600,000. Newmarket's Houghton Sales average advanced from 7,600gns to 92,500gns. Little wonder, then, that Sangster bade farewell to public auctions.
“Obviously Robert [Sangster] didn’t have things his own way any more but I think he would have withdrawn from the auction ring anyway,” Nick Robinson reflects. “By then he’d built up a big band of broodmares and owned interests in several attractive stallions he could send them to. He was never into it on the same scale as the sheikhs.”
Sangster’s second coming as a commercial breeder had its moments. However, come 1993, and governed by the need to liquidate his remaining assets, Sangster sold his one-third share in Coolmore Stud to Magnier.
From Magnier’s perspective, the timing could not have been better. The likes of Caerleon and Lomond were popular sires generating significant income in covering fees, none of it subject to tax under Ireland’s laws. But the game-changer for Magnier was undoubtedly Sadler’s Wells.
Bred by Sangster, Sadler’s Wells was syndicated into 40 shares at Ir£800,000 per share towards the end of 1984. He started covering at 125,000Irgns, rising to 250,000Irgns at the height of his popularity, and ended up heading the leading sires’ table in 14 out of 15 years from 1990. He was, quite simply, a phenomenon.
By the end of the old millennium this totemic stallion had generated income stretching into nine figures, a fair slice of which went to Magnier. At the time Magnier had no truck with the 40-mare annual limit notionally placed on a stallion’s book. By the mid-1990s it wasn’t unusual for Coolmore sires to cover four or five times that number. With Sadler’s Wells’ progeny scaling new heights on the racecourse every year, the money stacked up.
“Robert [Sangster] was more involved on the racing side whereas John [Magnier] was entirely at the breeding end,” says Robinson, who also handled Coolmore’s advertising in the early 1980s. “They were good friends but John probably had a better understanding of the business than Robert. He was brighter than Robert and had a bit of a ruthless streak. John has taken his opportunities.”
In due course Magnier accrued the funds he would need if he was to re-assert a Coolmore syndicate that had wilted in the face of Sheikh Mohammed’s spending power. His efforts have been greatly abetted not just by Sadler’s Wells but by his son, Galileo. Collectively, their progeny have asserted nearly 30 unbroken years of dominance over the sport.
Magnier is the first to acknowledge his good fortune in this respect. It allowed his Coolmore syndicate, which now included former bookmaker Michael Tabor and would soon recruit another in Derrick Smith, to re-enter the yearling market. Coolmore also made a series of high-profile broodmare purchases that would become the bedrock of the syndicate’s huge success on the racetrack.
The extent of dominance exerted by the two groups is manifest in Saturday’s Investec Derby. Coolmore is expected to be represented by up to seven runners, Godolphin by up to four. Yet Coolmore’s collective entry is considerably stronger, which in itself telegraphs the one key difference between the two outfits. Coolmore Stud houses Galileo, a stallion whom Sheikh Mohammed will have nothing to do with.
A thriving bloodstock empire is the golden ticket to racecourse success, yet the sheikh delivered an edict in 2006 that had far-reaching consequences. His decision to forsake all Coolmore stallions, as well as eschewing their progeny at the sales, has undoubtedly impacted on Godolphin’s racecourse success.
The origins of the sheikh’s ire have never been properly explained. The most likely source is that the sheikh had spent handsomely on Coolmore’s stallions in the past – notably when he bought a parcel of nominations entitling him to send 25 mares to Sadler’s Wells in each of the stallion’s first two seasons at stud. Conversely, Coolmore’s mares rarely visited stallions at Darley, the sheikh’s breeding venture. And they rarely bought yearlings by Darley sires.
The standoff meant that Sheikh Mohammed was heavily reliant on the progeny of Darley stallions for his racecourse success. Yet despite its best efforts, Darley has never come up with a game-changer of its own. In addition to Sheikh Mohammed’s racehorses Darley has recruited the likes of Arazi, Dancing Brave and Reference Point to the cause, all to little avail.
A part of that uneven balance may be about to be redressed. The recent emergence of some high-quality sires at Darley comes hand in hand with a revival in the Godolphin stable’s racing fortunes in Europe this year. Godolphin’s brace of Group 1 triumphs to date have been gained by Ribchester (Lockinge Stakes) and Sobetsu (Prix Saint-Alary), who are by Darley sires in Iffraaj and Dubawi respectively.
While there is new-found hope for Sheikh Mohammed and his team, the message from his standoff with Coolmore has become starkly apparent. Any racing outfit determined to make its way without patronising Coolmore’s stallions is fighting an uphill battle.
This struggle for racecourse supremacy has defined the racing canvas for the last two decades, and the respective approach of each party could not be more diverse. The Coolmore syndicate, which is defined by consistency and stability, is very much controlled by Magnier.
Magnier learned the value of a close-knit team when, aged 25, he joined the Coolmore syndicate then dominated by Sangster and O’Brien, who received expert advice from esteemed bloodstock agents Tom Cooper and PP Hogan. Magnier has the same level of expertise at his disposal now. His key personnel have remained constant for the last 30 years.
In contrast, Sheikh Mohammed’s operation morphs regularly, in keeping with his restless mind. He set up his Godolphin racing stable in the early 1990s, largely because behind-the-scenes squabbling among his British trainers prompted him to corral his best horses closer to home, where he could see more of them.
Initially a select stable of 60 three-year-olds and older horses, Godolphin sought to revoke traditional training methods by wintering horses hand-picked from the sheikh’s British string in Dubai’s mild climate.
It was an instant success, albeit heavily laced with irony. The pilot horse, the one who lent immediate credence to the sheikh’s project, was Balanchine, a filly he bought from Sangster after she had won both her juvenile starts in 1993. Balanchine returned at three to win the Oaks and Irish Derby. It prefaced a run of unbroken success for Godolphin that would stretch beyond the end of the decade.
Godolphin today is a very different beast. It embraces two trainers in Charlie Appleby and Saeed Bin Suroor, who handle more than 500 horses between them, including two-year-olds. Horses purchased in training no longer, in the main, join either of these two trainers, which was Godolphin’s original modus operandi. And Dubai is no longer the de facto winter home for Godolphin’s string.
Sheikh Mohammed has never stopped trying to find the magic formula in his pursuit of Coolmore. And this staunch commitment to success from both parties has completely transformed the racing and breeding scene in Europe. The very best stallions, Galileo and Dubawi in particular, are unavailable to outside breeders, while the sheer volume of racehorses owned by Sheikh Mohammed in Britain, and Coolmore in Ireland, means that winning any race in those countries is a feat in itself.
For all that, Robinson does not feel the two competing entities serve to smother all other owners. “Historically, there have always been big owners around,” he says. “The smaller people have to take the pickings and hopefully get a good one that is able to compete at the top of the tree, but there is nothing new about it.
“Big owners come and they go, and of course, they don’t always get all of the good horses,” Robinson continues. “I suppose we have never previously seen the level of investment made by Sheikh Mohammed and the Maktoum family. It is a numbers game for them: the more horses you buy, the more likely you are to have success.
“Some people complained as they expanded, and with their numbers they were always going to be a dominating factor. But the Maktoums have been pretty good; they haven’t done anything awful and they have helped the industry across the board, particularly in Britain. As a result, and with Coolmore’s influence, I think Britain and Ireland probably have the best quality of racing in the world.”
Monkey business as sparks fly
A pivotal time in the joust between Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed came when the latter decided to distance himself from patronising Coolmore’s stallions, and from buying any of their progeny at the sales.
This standoff became self-evident in the autumn of 2005, soon after the turf titans had tussled over a yearling colt by Storm Cat at Keeneland in September. With tensions already rising between the camps, Sheikh Mohammed would not yield. He went all the way to $9.7 million to secure the colt.
Despite this colossal price, the Storm Cat yearling, subsequently named Jalil, never threatened the $13.1 million world record paid for a yearling. That happened when the Coolmore syndicate, then headed by Robert Sangster, beat back Sheikh Mohammed for a son of Northern Dancer 20 years earlier.
However, soon after Sheikh Mohammed’s stance over Coolmore’s sires entered the public domain, the two duelled once again in a Florida auction ring over a two-year-old by Forestry. The sparks flew once again when Coolmore, now headed by John Magnier, raised a world-record bid of $16 million to claim the colt.
As with so many high-profile purchases, the colt, later named The Green Monkey, proved desperately slow on the racecourse. He failed to win in three starts, but the mind-boggling price paid for him illustrates the lengths to which both parties are prepared to go in their bid for racecourse supremacy. Not to mention how difficult it is for others to play at the same table.
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