It was shortly after 4pm on a February Saturday in Doha, capital of the gulf state of Qatar. At Al Rayyan racetrack on the edges of the city the temperature had fallen back from a midday high of 27˚C and a pleasant breeze was blowing in from the desert.
Everywhere you look in Qatar construction is underway, and clearly visible from the racecourse – beyond a mosque and a six-lane expressway – was the emerging shape of a dazzling new stadium for the 2022 football World Cup, overlooked by a huge tower in the shape of a torch. There’s talk that Al Rayyan racecourse may soon be replaced by a similarly modern structure, but for now the small yet charmingly quaint grandstand was packed with local racegoers craning their necks to get a glimpse of the runners in the $1m Emir’s Trophy as they raced towards the final bend. The mile‑and-a-half contest for thoroughbreds was one of the two biggest races on a card that forms the climax to The Emir’s Sword, the principal Qatari race meeting of the year. Six of the runners had travelled from overseas to take part, three of them from Britain, but as the field levelled up in the home straight it was The Blue Eye, trained locally by Jassim Mohammed Ghazali, but ridden by the English jockey Harry Bentley, who surged four lengths clear.
When it was time for the trophies to be presented, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, came down from the royal box accompanied by fellow Arab dignitaries in their national dress. The camera shutters snapped, the Channel 4 racing presenter Nick Luck, flown over specially for the occasion, provided a seamless commentary and the spectators responded with polite applause.
There is no betting allowed at Al Rayyan and no alcohol is served, even in the extremely comfortable VIP lounge. It’s not an arrangement that would be popular at Ascot or Newmarket, but among the smartly suited onlookers there were numerous representatives of the British, French, Irish and other traditional racing and horse-breeding countries: Harry Herbert, founder and chairman of the Highclere Thoroughbred Racing horse-owning syndicates; Lord March, owner and manager of the Goodwood Estate; Henry Beeby, group chief executive of Goffs, the Irish bloodstock auctioneers, and many others. They were there partly to enjoy the latest addition to the ever-increasing roster of international racing events that stretches from Dubai to Hong Kong and from Australia to the US. They were also naturally curious to experience racing in a country that, like Dubai in the UAE, was the original home of the Arab stallions brought to Europe in the 18th century and from which all modern European thoroughbreds are descended. But primarily they were there to network and do business. While Qatar is a significant oil producer, its predominant export is natural gas and, thanks to the almost unquantifiable wealth flowing from long-term sales and agreements, as well as the patronage of the royal family and ruling elite, Qatari sheikhs are now among the world’s biggest owners, sponsors, breeders and buyers of top-quality thoroughbreds.
Horse racing in Britain has seen numerous rich and exotic foreign patrons. Between 1930 and 1952, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, better known as Aga Khan III and grandfather of the present Aga, won the Derby five times. His fellow owners included his son Prince Aly Khan, as well as assorted Indian maharajahs, French industrialists and self-made American billionaires. In the past 30 years, the predominant figures have been the Irishman John Magnier and his partners at Coolmore Stud and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his brothers from Dubai, who have lavished fortunes on bloodstock while setting up the Godolphin racing stable in Newmarket and establishing the Dubai World Cup as the richest racing event on the planet.
The first Qatari to claim a seat at the big boys’ table was Sheikh Fahad bin Abdullah Al Thani, one of six sons of a former prime minister of Qatar who is an uncle of the current Emir. The engagingly enthusiastic Sheikh Fahad spent three years studying business administration at the Geneva Business School’s London campus. He had never been interested in purebred Arabian racing back home, but he liked watching British racing on television, and in May 2010 he went to Newmarket to watch the 2,000 Guineas, the first classic of the flat-racing season. The then 20-year-old Sheikh was totally captivated by the spectacle and within six months he had bought the Guineas winner Makfi to be his first stallion and appointed the Gloucestershire-based bloodstock agent David Redvers to be his racing manager.
In 2011, Sheikh Fahad and his brothers signed a munificent five-year sponsorship deal with British racing, in which their family-owned Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company (QIPCO) supported the 35-race British Champions Series, from the Guineas meeting in April to Champions Day at Ascot in October. It was recently renewed for a further 10 years, to the tune of around £100m.
Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing has enjoyed something of a roller-coaster ride since then, with a stable jockey suddenly retiring and the filly Simple Verse finishing first past the post in the St Leger at Doncaster last September only to be disqualified and then reinstated on appeal. Meanwhile, a different and more senior branch of Qatar’s royal family, one with its roots at the heart of the state’s development as a visitor destination, has also been moving into thoroughbred racing and sponsorship on a massive scale. Since 2008, the Qatar Racing & Equestrian Club (QREC), which runs the fixtures at Al Rayyan, has been sponsoring the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, endowing the world’s most prestigious horse race on turf with €5m worth of prize money. The French connection is particularly attractive to the Qataris, who, Sheikh Fahad’s experience aside, have historically had closer links to Paris than London. The Emir’s younger brother, Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who is the president of Qatar’s Olympic committee, was a student at the Saint-Cyr military academy in Brittany and maintains a residence in the French capital.
Sheikh Joaan owns purebred Arabian horses in Qatar, but was initially thought to doubt whether he could ever compete at the highest level in thoroughbred racing due to the hegemony of owners such as the Maktoums. What changed his mind was first watching Sheikh Fahad win the Melbourne Cup in 2011 and then seeing a thrillingly fast French filly called Treve win the Prix de Diane at Chantilly in June 2013. The filly was trained by Criquette Head-Maarek and bred by her father Alec, one of the most revered characters in European racing. The two had already trained the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner five times between them, and in Treve they appeared to have found another embryonic champion. Sheikh Joaan bought Treve for an undisclosed sum and three months later she rewarded him by storming to a scintillating five-length victory in the 2013 Arc at Longchamp. She returned to win the race for a second time 12 months later and, although she was only fourth in last year’s renewal, she has since been retired to Sheikh Joaan’s stud farm, the Haras de Bouquetot in Normandy, as a priceless broodmare.
Sheikh Joaan’s Al Shaqab Racing is different to Sheikh Fahad’s more speculative ventures and, like QREC, exists primarily to promote and publicise Qatar worldwide in a similar fashion to Sheikh Mohammed’s strategy over the years with Dubai. Determined to show the established powers there was a new player in town, Al Shaqab spent £10.7m on 16 yearlings at the Tattersalls 2013 sale in Newmarket, and one of those purchases – a 5m-guinea filly by the world’s number one sire Galileo – was the highest price ever paid for a yearling in the UK.
In 2013 Al Shaqab retained a rejuvenated Frankie Dettori – who had previously ridden for Sheikh Mohammed for 18 years – as its number one jockey in Britain, and its 200-plus horses are spread around some of the top stables in Europe and the US, including André Fabre in France, the last two English champions John Gosden and Richard Hannon, and Todd Pletcher in New York. Just as significant as the choice of yearlings and trainers to mould them has been Sheikh Joaan’s appointment of Harry Herbert as Al Shaqab’s racing adviser. The unfailingly genial Herbert, who started Highclere back in 1992, has an unrivalled circle of contacts among the top breeders, trainers and bloodstock agents, including his brother-in-law John Warren, who is racing manager to the Queen. Herbert has been promoting Al Shaqab with his customary polish and has quickly built Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes day at Newbury in May into a new £750,000 showcase fixture. “Sheikh Joaan very much sees Al Shaqab as representing Qatar,” stresses Herbert, “and showing a good face of the country. It’s also possible that more younger Qataris will follow the royal family’s example, and in 10 years’ time they could be the biggest powerhouse in all of world racing.”
It’s possible to see in Herbert’s words about the “good face” of Qatar an allusion to the more contentious issues associated with the country, from the controversial bidding for the 2022 Fifa World Cup to the reported deaths of migrant workers employed on the countless infrastructure projects required for that event. On June 6 2015, the BBC Online News Magazine examined claims by the International Trade Union Confederation that between 2011 and 2013 more than 1,200 Indian and Nepali migrant workers died on construction sites related to the tournament. This figure has been angrily denied, with insistence that the 1,200 refers to the total number of deaths, for a wide variety of reasons, among all the workers of those nationalities employed in the state.
Whatever the truth of these claims and counterclaims, nothing demonstrates Qatar’s acceptance at the pinnacle of British horse racing more eloquently than QREC’s sponsorship of Glorious Goodwood, an event that begins this year on July 26 and has been rebranded the Qatar Goodwood Festival. The 10-year deal, announced in December 2014, has increased prize money at the Glorious meeting by £2.25m, the week’s premier contest, the Sussex Stakes, now worth £1m alone.
When news of the QREC partnership first broke, there was consternation in traditional circles that a much-loved sporting and social institution had sold its soul for financial gain. But the first year of the new tie-up last summer confounded the pessimists. A beautifully sculpted red and white carnation-encrusted pavilion – red and white being the colours of the Qatari flag – joined the established mix of marquees and enclosures, while the enhanced racing programme was more exciting and competitive than ever. Goodwood’s custodian and driving force Lord March is adamant that “Qatar has been wonderful for the racecourse. They completely understand the significance of our rich history and totally get what Goodwood means to the English summer season. And to be racing here and know you are seeing the very best horses compete for the highest prizes adds hugely to the excitement and atmosphere of the Festival. It’s not only a very positive thing for Goodwood, but for the sport as a whole. This support from Qatar has raised the racing game in this country like never before.”
Nasser Sherida Al Kaabi, general manager of QREC, is equally passionate about the new relationship. “British horse racing is one of the most respected industries in the world, and QREC wanted to be involved in racing at the highest level and compete on a global platform,” he explains. “We are also hoping that in future an increasing number of international horses will come to Qatar and target our Qatar Derby meeting and our most prestigious race meeting of the year, The Emir’s Sword.”
When the rulers of Dubai first went into European racing in the 1980s, they were greeted with a mixture of curiosity, disdain and a wolfish eagerness to help them spend their money. The Qataris are quietly determined to learn from that experience. Their support of events such as Goodwood and the Arc is sanctioned at the highest levels and, whatever benefits football may bring them in six years’ time, they clearly already regard thoroughbred horse racing, both in Britain and worldwide, as the perfect promotional partner.