Inside Godolphin: Sheikh Mohammed’s horse racing stable wants to re-establish supremacy

Founded by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 1992, Godolphin is the flagship of perhaps the most ambitious project in the modern history of sport. SportsPro travelled to the UAE to discover an outfit well aware of its legacy beyond on the track.

Inside Godolphin: Sheikh Mohammed’s horse racing stable wants to re-establish supremacy

Not long ago, the green stretch of the gallops at Al Quoz was an islet in many miles of desert. Then a city grew beside it, and an empire around it. 

From his seat above the grass track here, Saeed bin Suroor, Godolphin’s longest-serving trainer, might have traced the rise of Dubai, following the skyline upwards and outwards from the sand; a modest Middle Eastern centre that became a compelling, confounding global metropolis. But his attention will likely have been held by the activities in the grounds on which he stood. What was once a single block of stables is now part of a cutting-edge facility for training thoroughbred horses.

This is the home of Godolphin, the most ambitious and perhaps the most influential undertaking in modern horse racing. The figure that links it to those surroundings is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Ruler of Dubai, and the founder of Godolphin.

“As Dubai has developed as a city, Godolphin has also grown,” states bin Suroor, the team’s longest-serving trainer. Born in Dubai, he joined in 1994. Since then, Godolphin has fielded winners in 14 countries. Bin Suroor has over 2,000 of his own, while more than 260 of the team’s victories have come in elite Group One races. Godolphin has two stables in Dubai, two in the UK racing heartland of Newmarket, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, while their horses run regularly in Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, and the US. A top-flight breeding operation also spans the globe.

Its progress helped to inspire the creation of the Dubai World Cup, which in 22 years has become a lucrative and prestigious fixture on the global racing calendar, and the construction of the gigantic Meydan Racecourse, with its five-star hotel, its mile-long grandstand, its 60,000 capacity and its parallel grass and dirt tracks.

“There has never been anything quite like Godolphin,” says Stephen Wallis, the group head of international and racing relations at the UK’s Jockey Club. “The global scale of their racing and breeding operation is so vast.”

Godolphin’s Al Quoz training base in the heart of Dubai

The entry of Sheikh Mohammed in Newmarket transformed racing, setting a virtuous cycle in motion. Horses were sold at higher prices, making it possible for breeders to reinvest. New jobs were created. Through media outlets like the Racing Post and Channel 4, a stronger communications platform was built for the sport. New technologies and ideas flourished, and money flowed into research. To compete, others also had to innovate – and many did. Following familiar paths was no longer enough.

“Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers were very successful owners in their own rights during the 1980s,” says Hugh Anderson, managing director of Godolphin in the UK and UAE. “When Sheikh Mohammed created Godolphin in 1992 it was a seismic change in the industry. This was a brand new type of owner/trainer operation where things were done in new ways on so many levels, not least of which was the movement of the racehorses to Dubai each winter.”

The economic impact of a financially strong new player is obvious. But Godolphin meant much more than money, Anderson says – not least in Newmarket, the epicenter of horse racing in Europe.

“It was an entirely new way of doing things that was in many ways a challenge to the traditional and conservative racing industry,” he says. “A man from a relatively new country, who was himself an expert rider and a horseman, came right in and set up an operation that was unconventional in many ways but, crucially, was immediately very successful.”

The economic impact of a financially strong new player is obvious. But Godolphin meant much more than money

Charlie Appleby, like bin Suroor, trains his horses in Dubai’s winter and the UK’s summer. The Englishman has also seen Godolphin develop since the 1990s, through his own rise from the post of travelling head lad to his appointment as a trainer in 2013.

“If we were sat here – 20 years ago, this was sand,” says Appleby, speaking at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel in the days ahead of the Dubai World Cup meeting in late March. “Now there is this amazing modern city, full of people from all over the world. It’s vast but well connected, everything is just a stone’s throw away. You’ve only got to get off the plane at Dubai Airport, and there’s your drive, you’re almost home, straight away. On the racing side of it, the Dubai World Cup, it’s also all been through one man’s vision and drive and that’s His Highness Sheikh Mohammed.”

It is no accident that the partner’s logo carried on Godolphin’s blue racing silks is that of Emirates Airline, a prolific sports sponsor that has taken the name of Dubai around the world, and carried millions of international visitors back to the city itself.

Yet Sheikh Mohammed’s interest in racing predates Godolphin by decades. It reaches past the formation of Darley Stud, the Newmarket-based global stallion operation that grew from his purchase of Dalham Hall Stud in 1981, the purchase of Hatta in 1977, and his student trips to British racecourses in the 1960s. Tales of a youth spent riding bareback down Jumeirah Beach may feel like the stuff of legend, but his very real passion for horses magnetises those who work with him.

“You can just see when you talk about horses – racehorses, of course, or endurance horses – his demeanour changes,” says William Buick, the Norwegian-born British-Danish rider who was appointed as a Godolphin stable jockey in 2015. “His eyes light up, and it’s something he’s obviously very knowledgeable about, and it something that he’s very comfortable talking about.”

William Buick charges to victory in June’s Epsom Derby, a first ever win in the Classic for Sheikh Mohammed and trainer Charlie Appleby

James Cummings is the latest entry in a celebrated family of Australian trainers. He took over the team’s operation there, with its 250 horses and 120 staff, in 2017. “Because Godolphin had, for so long, a reputation for excellence,” he says. “It’s driven by a leader whose ideals about the horse itself and the essence of racing a horse are really as pure as they come. Horses are in his blood, and they’re in my blood, too.”

All around the founder is a team with a shared commitment to success.

A little over half an hour’s drive from Dubai, the views from the highway grow sparser, and the tarmac recedes. Antelope emerge by the side of an old dirt road.

A corner is turned amid this unexpected serenity and a flash of green appears, flanked on all sides by white-painted buildings. This is Godolphin’s other Dubai training centre, Marmoom. Appleby’s winter base has room for 80 horses but there are usually around 55 to 60 in residence, and a day before the Dubai World Cup, as the Emirati and European seasons converge, a complex operation is unfolding. 

From the earliest days of the Godolphin project, Sheikh Mohammed sensed a competitive opportunity and health benefits in moving his European-based horses to the warmer climes of the UAE for the winter. Some at Marmoom have been racing through the Dubai Carnival season since January; a few have business at the weekend’s meeting at Meydan.

For many of the year’s best prospects, the past few months have been spent in pre-season training. 17 horses are finishing a month in quarantine, ready to travel back to the UK in just a couple of days’ time; two more are sequestered separately ahead of a mid-April meet.

Godolphin makes use of high-end innovations in training and equine care, such as its water treadmills

From late October until early April, Marmoom opens at around 5.30am to get the horses out and running in the cool of the morning. Some seasonal work riders travel in from the city but most of the staff board on site in quarters with their own chef. 

The horses emerge in three groups, warm up for 15 minutes, then run and cool down. There are two surfaces here, just as at Meydan. The nine-furlong dirt oval, three and a half inches deep and sitting on a foot and a half of sand, is raked after each run. Beyond that lies a nine-furlong grass track. Allowing for each horse’s race schedule, fitness work is typically done on the dirt and speed work on the grass. There is no tarmac here so the horses train barefoot, and are only shod on race day – a recent innovation done in the best the interests of the horses and equine welfare.

Each morning, Appleby watches his charges from bleachers overlooking the grass run. Standing trackside to monitor their performance up close is Sophie Cretien. She feeds information back to Appleby at the end of training, when the horses retire to their stables to rest through the heat of the day.

Intelligence is at the core of the whole enterprise, with even Appleby’s knowledge of a horse’s family history coming into play. Training horses, he says, is like training athletes: where some respond to constant hard work and competition, others need a gentler route to their racing peak.

That individualised approach goes beyond the track. The treadmill can be employed to manage a heavy workload. An on-site equine spa boasts a scanner, nebuliser, x-ray machine, heat lamps, and an array of gadgets and computers equipped with the latest technology. “The horses want for nothing,” jokes Appleby. “If I was ever to come back as an animal, I’ll be a Godolphin racehorse, please.”

Such attention to detail is born, in part, of a determination to do best by the animals and for their welfare but there is a business case here, too. Each horse has a race path to follow and a commercial purpose to fulfil, from winning prize money to earning a lucrative post-career at stud.

“If we go to Windsor on a Monday and we have a runner there, the runner is there for a reason,” says Buick. “The horse is running there because we think he can win – so then we need to win that race. There could be UK£2,500 to the winner, which is of no consequence – it won’t get written about or spoken about – but for that particular horse, that race is important.”

Each morning, Charlie Appleby watches his charges from the stands overlooking the run

The general culture may be set at the top but throughout Godolphin, staff are encouraged to take educated, independent decisions. The breadth of territories in which Godolphin works further encourages this devolved approach, though each member of the network can still depend on others for advice.

Cummings recounts conversations he had with Godolphin’s French trainer, Andre Fabre, when Interlocuter was transferred to Australia. The two discussed the horse’s progress as a yearling, his performance in a debut victory, and impressions from workouts. “That sort of sharing of information is really important with our global team,” Cummings says, “and I think it’s a really good example of how two different stables on the other side of the world can work together on the fulfilment of a horse.”

As might be expected given its history, the globe-trotting Godolphin leads the way in the practice of travelling horses, with a fleet of custom-built road vehicles and aircraft at its disposal. Appleby has taken many of these journeys, and keeps tabs on his runners on their way to England.

Awaiting those horses in the UK is a comparable set of facilities at Newmarket. Saeed bin Suroor’s runners will head to Godolphin Stables, originally built in 1903. Appleby’s group are based at Moulton Paddocks, the grounds of which have been used for training horses since the 19th century and came into Godolphin’s possession in 1994.

“The stables at Newmarket are run the same as in Dubai,” says bin Suroor. “It’s important for the horses that they have their routine and that this changes as little as possible.”

During its time in Newmarket, Godolphin makes use of several gallops held by the Jockey Club, which is also the owner of 15 racecourses across the UK.

“There has never been anything like Godolphin in British racing,” says Stephen Wallis. “Their impact goes way beyond the memory of their best horses. The high standard of their training facilities has given employment to so many – not just stable staff, but also architects, builders, all-weather racing surface and running-rail providers. They have had a major economic impact on all aspects of our sport and industry. Newmarket would be a very different town had they chosen Chantilly or The Curragh as their base instead.”

That community-building is augmented through talent development. Cummings recalls an unfulfilled youthful yearning to join the Darley Flying Start programme. Now known as Godolphin Flying Start, it offers a two-year full-time international management and leadership training course for young people in the thoroughbred industry, with experiential learning at Godolphin sites in five countries. Masar Godolphin, meanwhile, is a one-year programme for Emiratis aged 20 to 30 which offers spells at Newmarket and Kildare.    

Godolphin have had a major economic impact on all aspects of our sport and industry. Newmarket would be a very different town had they chosen Chantilly or The Curragh as their base instead

Godolphin’s patronage extends to initiatives that celebrate the work of people throughout the industry. In the UK, for example, it sponsors the Stud and Stable Staff Awards each year. Wallis also points to the group’s “vital underpinning role in a worldwide push for equine welfare, and many more causes, that would not be what they are without Godolphin’s drive and commitment”. A leading role is now being sought in improving aftercare for the central players, retraining thoroughbred horses for long lives away from competition.

What has been focusing minds around the stables, and exciting fans across Dubai, is Meydan.

“Going into World Cup night, it’s like the Olympics,” says Appleby. “There’s no doubt about it. You’ll see some of the finest equine athletes from all around the world on Saturday night.”

Since its launch in 1996, the Dubai World Cup has been an excuse to invite the horse racing elite to see the rapidly developing emirate and to stimulate domestic interest in the sport and its industry. It is part of the spine of Dubai’s social calendar, burnishing the city’s reputation as a host of global events. Above all, though, it has helped Sheikh Mohammed realise his ambition of bringing thoroughbred racing to what he sees as its spiritual home. Godolphin itself is named for the Godolphin Arabian, one of three 18th century Middle Eastern stallions to which the male lines of all thoroughbreds can be traced.

Considerable resources have seeded the meeting’s growth. Although the night’s US$10 million showpiece was supplanted as the best-paying single horse race by Florida’s Pegasus World Cup in 2017, the meeting itself remains the richest day in the sport in terms of prize money, with over US$30 million to be won.

A ‘Breakfast with the Stars’ event early on Thursday morning gives fans a chance to see competing horses and riders up close. Thursday evening heralds the HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Horseracing Excellence Awards, held at the luxury District One residential complex – part of the emerging Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City, which will help knit the Meydan area to downtown Dubai.

“There’s a lot of focus around us, around horse racing and around the World Cup meeting,” says Buick. “It’s more focused this week than probably most weeks in the year for me but I enjoy it. It goes with the territory.”

From 1996 until 2009, the Dubai World Cup was held at the Nad Al Sheba Racecourse. By the time of its move to Meydan in 2010 it had already been established as a world class race, but the relocation has bestowed more than a little of Dubai’s latter-day bombast on proceedings.

Piano music plays in the capacious, hotel-style lobby as spectators arrive – formally dressed for the premium seats, and in more understated attire for general admission. Sculptures of past winners in their racing colours line the hallways. Amid flocks of dresses and lounge suits, children follow members of an African drum circle and scores of fans study form guides on stand-up tables.

Belgium’s Christophe Soumillon celebrates an emphatic win in the Dubai World Cup on Thunder Snow

Outside, spectators shelter on the shady grass banks beneath the giant winged grandstand that is Meydan’s signature feature, sitting close to the winners’ enclosure and the open-air studios of a cohort of international broadcasters.

The afternoon draws into evening, with an opening ceremony built on the animated tale of a young girl drawn to a horse charging through the desert. When the racing resumes under lights, William Buick takes the Group One Dubai Sheema Classic, the most prestigious of the meeting on the turf, for Charlie Appleby. He roars and points to the sky as he takes Hawkbill over the line. Appleby claps one hand across the other, bursting with delight.

The night gathers pace, and spotlights fall on the finish line. The sky is darker, the moon whiter, and the grandstands stiller as the climax approaches. The parade ring thickens with VIPs in national dress.

The last of Godolphin’s seven Dubai World Cup wins before this year came in 2014. Buick himself rode the Saeed Bin Suroor-trained Prince Bishop to victory in 2015 – albeit for the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed’s son Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.

“It’s obviously a rich prize at the end of the finish line but whoever gets there first has really deserved it,” Buick says. “It’s a challenge for the horse rider; for the trainer to get the horse there. It’s called the Dubai World Cup and it’s a World Cup as a race as well, it really is.”

And for all the pride felt in Dubai at attracting the international elite, a local winner would be most welcome. Two Godolphin horses will chase hard in a cosmopolitan field, with representatives from the US, Russia, Venezuela and Japan. Fabre’s Talismanic has been talked up through the week and is joined on the dirt by an enigma from bin Suroor’s stable.

Ten months earlier, Irish-bred four-year-old Thunder Snow pulled up short on one of the biggest occasions of his life at the Kentucky Derby. He was healthy – he just didn’t want to go. This time he does go. And go, and go, and go. Thunder Snow hits the front and pulls away, racing five lengths clear to post a track record time.

It is the fourth Group One win of the night for Godolphin, running rampant after its slow start. As the clamour recedes, and the trophy presentation begins, Sheikh Mohammed takes the stage. He raises his right arm aloft as if in a regal wave, but then shimmies from foot to foot. He twirls to his right, then back to his left, and joyfully salutes the crowd.

“We’re always trying to improve on what is already a pursuit of excellence.”

The quote that His Highness uses is: ‘The race for excellence has no finish line’. And I think that reflects in Godolphin as well

Back at Al Quoz on Sunday, all is quiet. After a late-night victory and weeks of furious work, the Godolphin offices are empty. The hero of the hour enjoys a rest. Thunder Snow’s head protrudes from his stable wall, specially constructed with insect-mesh surrounds to allow its inhabitant some mid-afternoon air.

The peace will be short-lived. “I will work closely with my team and with Sheikh Mohammed to develop race plans and identify target races for individual horses,” says bin Suroor, “and we then work on a campaign to get the horse in peak physical condition for these races.”

Europe’s Flat season will approach fast and the team will have runners in the British Classics, and in Ireland, France and Germany throughout the northern hemisphere summer. Then it will be back to the international circuit: on to Australia, and Hong Kong, and the Breeders’ Cup in the US.

“The wheel keeps turning – which is great,” says Appleby. “I love it because you keep that momentum going.”

Expectations are high for the year ahead. Appleby believes his crop of runners are in better shape than at any other point in his time as a trainer. He has his eye, one day, on a trainer’s title in the UK, while Buick has targeted the prize of Champion Jockey. The Epsom Derby is a common fixation. Godolphin trainers and riders have won British Flat racing’s showpiece in other colours but no jockey has ever triumphed in the team’s blue silks.   

The wait does not go on much longer. Shortly before SportsPro goes to print in early June, with the British racing world ready to hail Aidan O’Brien’s odds-on favourite Saxon Warrior, Buick leads Appleby’s Masar on a brilliant surge to victory over the downs.

Godolphin founder Sheikh Mohammed and trainer Appleby at Epsom in June 2018

“It’s not sunk in yet,” says Appleby at the finish. “I’m delighted for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed. Firstly, for giving me the position to be here. I’ve always said when I started this job I wanted to be the first person to have a Derby winner in Godolphin blue.”

It is a win that confirms Godolphin’s return to the front ranks of world racing, but also a race that bears traces of Dubai’s future influence in the sport. Sheikh Mohammed’s son, Sheikh Hamdan, watches his Dee Ex Bee cross the line in second.

Also in attendance is Sheikh Mohammed’s young daughter, Sheikha Al Jalila, who he has described to the Racing Post as “completely passionate about racing”. Last year, he confirmed that she would take on the maroon and white silks in which his horses ran before Godolphin. HH Sheikha Al Jalila Racing, with horses trained by the celebrated John Gosden, has posted five winners at the time of writing.  

Not that the man who started it all is satisfied with his own contribution just yet.

“I think the quote that His Highness uses is: ‘The race for excellence has no finish line,’” says Buick. “And I think that reflects in Godolphin as well. I know that sounds very clichéd but it’s very true. We move on very quickly after a race – win, lose or draw – and we focus on the next one.”

Bin Suroor believes that “what His Highness Sheikh Mohammed has done for horse racing will never be done again”. Yet for all the winners it has raced and the progress that is traced through its contribution, the team behind Godolphin have much they still want to achieve – and much appetite left to achieve it.

“I think the potential always astounds me, and the prospect that we’ve always got something on the horizon – something new, some improvement,” says Cummings. “Some way to push the boundaries and push our own limits: get more out of each other, get more out of our horses, make more use of our land, make more use of everything around us and our facilities. To me, the most impressive thing about the sort of leadership that’s employed with our company is that we’re encouraged to think outside the square.

What His Highness Sheikh Mohammed has done for horse racing will never be done again