Clouds over Newmarket as Turf fears pull-out by Sheikh Mohammed | Sport

On a March afternoon with just the faintest hint of spring in the air Newmarket should have much to look forward to. Flat racing on turf returns within a month, the breeze-ups and the Craven meeting will be along soon afterwards and the posters are up on the lamp posts advertising Guineas weekend in early May.

In the pubs and betting shops along the High Street, though, there is apprehension in the air, as the town’s biggest employer endures another day of brutally damaging headlines. “Queen to shun Dubai ruler,” is the latest, over a report that the monarch – the patron of the Jockey Club – will no longer be photographed with Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, horse racing’s biggest owner, following a court ruling on Thursday that the Sheikh had organised the abduction and detention of two of his daughters and intimidated his former wife, Princess Haya.

Anything that casts any doubt on Sheikh Mohammed’s continued involvement with British racing is seen as an existential threat in Newmarket, a town which has had an umbilical link to the turf since King Charles II identified it as the perfect spot to train and race horses by day and party hard by night, away from prying eyes back in London.

“You won’t find anyone here with a word to say against him,” one stable hand said while watching the afternoon racing over a pint in one of the high-street pubs. “I don’t work for him but hundreds of people here do and, when he arrived, he pushed wages up for everyone. He was paying better than the trainers who were here before and then everyone else had to put their wages up to get the staff. There’s lots of millionaires and billionaires in racing but there’s not one of them that’s done half of what Sheikh Mohammed has for Newmarket.”

His companion agrees. “It would be devastating for Newmarket if he ever pulled out,” he says. “He’s paid for so much here. There’s a sports pavilion across the road, he paid for that. He’s paid for schools, he’s done so much that’s good for people here.”

A taxi driver of many years’ experience has another story that hints at the wealth that works its way through Newmarket from its source in Dubai’s sovereign wealth. “When I used to work on Guineas weekend and Sheikh Mohammed was in town,” he says, “you always had to make sure that you had change for a £50 note. All the stable staff got their bonuses in cash and they used to talk about there being a whole palette of fifties being handed out. Sometimes you’d get three fares in a row and they’d all want to pay with a fifty.”

In a BetFred shop halfway down the High Street, all eyes are on the racing from Meydan, the vast $1.25bn racecourse in Dubai which was ready for racing less than three years after Sheikh Mohammed unveiled the plans. The “Super Saturday” racing at the track is being staged behind closed doors as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I think people are more worried about the virus or Cheltenham or Aintree being off than they are about Sheikh Mohammed pulling out of Newmarket,” one customer says. “But it would be a disaster if he did. There’s all the jobs and he’s bought so much of the land around here. There are roads and gallops named after his best horses.”

And there is a reminder here, too, of the nervousness when Sheikh Mohammed’s name is mentioned, and the fear of causing any offence to the town’s greatest benefactor. “I’m sorry,” one of the cashiers says, “but you can’t ask questions in here. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

A glance in the window of an estate agent near the town’s famous Clock Tower confirms that house prices here remain healthy but it is not necessarily racing money that is keeping the market buoyant.

“There are two levels here in Newmarket,” the agent explains, “very high and low, and many stable staff are more in the rented sector. But there is still a huge demand for housing because of the boom that’s going on [14 miles away] in Cambridge.”

Sheikh Mohammed has been the most powerful owner in the game for so many years that few in Newmarket can remember a time before his arrival, or imagine what the landscape would look like without him. For Flat racing’s professionals and fans it will always be “Headquarters”, the home of the Guineas and the Jockey Club, but for an increasing number of Newmarket residents it is simply a convenient and affordable alternative to Cambridge.

Racing’s iron grip on the life and economy of Newmarket is slowly weakening and the process could accelerate dramatically if Dubai’s ruler ever moves out. Little wonder, then, that racing’s workforce here remains so fiercely loyal to the man whose money has been pouring in for decades when even the Queen, it seems, has turned her back.

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