It is probably fair to say that when the British Horseracing Authority drew up its “fit and proper” criteria for prospective racehorse owners, the regulators had gangsters and money-launderers in mind, not foreign heads of state. Nonetheless, in the light of Thursday’s finding by a family court judge that Sheikh Mohammed arranged the abduction and imprisonment of two of his daughters, the implications of point 9(c) in the section headed “Honesty and Integrity” are difficult to avoid.
“The criteria to which the authority will have regard in assessing honesty and integrity,” it says, “include … whether the applicant has been the subject of any adverse finding by a judge in any civil proceedings.” An earlier passage relating to criminal convictions, meanwhile, says that “particular consideration will be given to offences of dishonesty, fraud, and those relating to sexual conduct, violence, animal welfare and health and safety.”
Sir Andrew McFarlane’s finding, in a case brought by Sheikh Mohammed’s former wife, Princess Haya, was in a civil court and thus based on the balance of probabilities rather than the stricter criminal test of being beyond reasonable doubt. As things stand right now, however, it seems reasonable to suggest that if the BHA objectively applied its “fit and proper” test to a man who has invested a lot more money into racing and bloodstock than anyone in history, he would be far from certain to pass.
It will not do that, of course. It would not dare. The indecent haste with which Mahmood al-Zarooni was ejected from racing seven years ago, without any meaningful investigation of the concerted doping operation at Godolphin’s Moulton Paddocks stable in Newmarket, suggests much about the regulator’s reluctance to cause offence to the sport’s biggest benefactor. It is an understandable reluctance, too. No individual is bigger than racing itself, so they say – but Sheikh Mohammed comes mighty close.
The scale of Sheikh Mohammed’s investment in the turf since the filly Hatta gave him his first success as an owner at Brighton in June 1977 is beyond description, calculation or even imagination. He is to Newmarket what Nissan is to Sunderland: its biggest employer, both directly and indirectly, and of paramount importance to the local economy.
The Group One winners and the multi-million pound yearling purchases at Tattersalls in October get all the headlines, but you cannot buy champions without buying plenty of very average performers too. Thousands of runners have carried Sheikh Mohammed’s colours for more than 40 years, each one representing a wage and a fee for their groom and trainer respectively but also helping to keep the whole racing show on the road. A big chunk of the money circulating in Newmarket every day, in shops, restaurants, pubs, taxis and so on, arrived in Suffolk via Dubai.
Sheikh Mohammed’s money has built hundreds of houses – not to mention quite a few mansions – not only in Newmarket but in racing centres around the world. It has built and refurbished training complexes. Nearly 200 graduates have passed through Godolphin’s two-year Flying Start programme on the way to senior roles in racing and bloodstock. At the sales, meanwhile, everyone knows that it takes just two bidders to make a market. Time after time during the past 40 years, Sheikh Mohammed has been one of them. There are, quite simply, few parts of the global Flat racing industry that his money has not reached.
Which is why it may have felt a couple of degrees chillier than normal on the Newmarket gallops on Friday morning. The money tap has been running on full for so long that it has been easy to assume it will stay that way forever.
Thursday’s publication of McFarlane’s damning judgment may well come to be seen as the moment when Sheikh Mohammed’s lifelong association with Britain and its racing industry started to cool and the tap, slowly but surely, started turning in the opposite direction.
For racing’s part, meanwhile, there may also be a steady loosening of the ties. Godolphin was conceived as a way to promote Dubai around the world as a tourist destination and hub for finance, business and global travel. A senior judge has now ruled that its founder organised the kidnapping and detainment of his own children. Sunshine and sand may no longer be the first thing that springs to the mind of many spectators when the royal blue colours win a Group One race, while Sheikh Mohammed’s days of riding with the Queen in the No 1 carriage in the Royal Procession at Ascot may also be over.
It is less than two years since Sheikh Mohammed realised possibly his greatest ambition in racing when Masar won the Derby at Epsom in Godolphin blue. On the winner’s podium afterwards, he glowed with all the energy and enthusiasm of the young man in his 20s who took a train to Brighton in 1977 to watch Hatta win her maiden, and the huge Epsom crowd celebrated with him.
But what, you wonder, would his reception be like now? Sheikh Mohammed’s investment in racing and bloodstock over the course of four decades has been transformational for the sport as a whole, and also for the lives of many thousands who work in it. For plenty of racing fans, however, as well as the outside world looking in at the sport of kings, the picture of Godolphin’s founder that emerged in Thursday’s judgment may prove all but impossible to forget.