Talking Horses: Sheikh Hamdan’s investment in racing was incalculable

The blue and white colours of Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, whose death at the age of 75 was announced on Wednesday, were instantly familiar to racing fans around the world for 40 years, in Group One races and maidens and everything between. His investment in bloodstock, both for racing and breeding, in that time was incalculable, and matched or exceeded only by his younger brother, Sheikh Mohammed.

While his brother’s maroon-and-white colours were replaced with Godolphin blue a quarter of a century ago, however, Sheikh Hamdan’s silks were a constant thread in the narrative of Flat racing from the afternoon when the two-year-old Mushref gave the owner his first winner, at Redcar in the summer of 1980.

From there his interests swiftly expanded into Ireland, France, Australia, the US and South Africa, including the purchase of the Shadwell Stud in Norfolk in 1984. By then Height Of Fashion, who raced for the Queen on the Flat, had already been added to Sheikh Hamdan’s nascent breeding operation and she proved to be the foundation mare of an astonishingly successful breeding operation.

Unfuwain, Height Of Fashion’s second foal, was a Group Two winner and also beaten second-favourite in the 1988 Derby. A year later her third foal, Nashwan, was a dominant winner of the Epsom Classic having already landed the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket.

Victories in the Eclipse Stakes and King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes soon followed and proved hugely popular with a racing fraternity that had been shocked by the Queen’s decision less than a year earlier to require Dick Hern, Nashwan’s trainer, to quit her West Ilsley Stables.

Hern, who had been largely confined to a wheelchair since 1984, was recovering from heart surgery at the time. A compromise was eventually reached which allowed him to remain at West Ilsley for another 12 months, but he then moved to Kingwood Stables in Lambourn after Sheikh Hamdan refurbished the yard to accommodate Hern with no expense spared.

Hern’s colt Dayjur, one of the fastest horses the turf has seen, blitzed his way through a series a big sprints in 1990 before jinking at a shadow with the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at his mercy, and the decision to stick by Hern in his hour of need was an example of the loyalty which the Sheikh showed to both trainers and jockeys during his four decades in the sport.

Marcus Tregoning, who took over Kingwood after Hern’s retirement, saddled Nayef – another son of Height Of Fashion – to win Group One races in three successive seasons from 2001, and also Mohaather, one of Sheikh Hamdan’s last Group One winners, in 2020. In all, and while his brother’s British interests increasingly came under the Godolphin banner in two big Newmarket yards, Sheikh Hamdan had Group-race success with 24 different trainers in Britain alone.

“I was very privileged to train for him,” said Charlie Hills, a Group One winner for the owner with Baataash and Muhaarar, “and fortunate that he was supportive when I took over the reins to carry on having horses here. It wouldn’t really have worked without his support at the time, and his knowledge of the racing industry and horses was immense.

“He had tremendous patience with horses and knew his breeding and pedigree inside out. You needed to perform, but at the same time he was a very loyal man and very kind as well.”

In addition to a series of home-bred Classic and Group One winners including Eswarah (2005 Oaks), Taghrooda (2014 Oaks and King George) and Sakhee (2001 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe), Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell operation was also a major player at the annual yearling sales, while his immense investment in racing went far beyond horses and the people who trained and rode them.

The Al Bahathri gallop in Newmarket, paid for by Sheikh Hamdan and named after his first Classic winner, remains an invaluable asset for the town’s trainers 35 years after it was installed, while he also invested heavily in sponsorships, stables, stud farms and other properties around the world.

“We’re all devastated,” said Richard Hills, Sheikh Hamdan’s retained jockey for 15 years and later an assistant racing manager for Shadwell. “He was such a great man, he was like a father to me. He was my friend, and I was riding his horses, which was his passion. It was joy all the way through.”