When a legend runs for the final time on Saturday, watching at Ascot will be Sheikh Fahad, one of racing’s major players who three years ago had never even visited a track

Evening Standard

Saturday’s British Champions Day at Ascot has just about everything. With £3million in prize money it is racing’s richest day and will host Frankel’s last race.

There could be no better finale to the flat racing season than for the wonder horse to win the Champion Stakes and retire to stud unbeaten but he is up against last year’s winner, Cirrus Des Aigles.

Sheikh Fahad, whose family business QIPCO sponsors the British Champions Series, believes the French gelding could pose Frankel problems.

“It will be an interesting race,” says the member of the Qatar royal family. “If the ground becomes heavy, Cirrus Des Aigles has a chance.”

As I gasp at the thought that Frankel might be beaten, the Sheikh adds: “Maybe Cirrus Des Aigles will come to within two lengths of Frankel. When Frankel is running, there are two races going on: a Frankel race and a race for the rest of the field all scrapping for second. I doubt there’s anything in this world that can beat Frankel.”

The Sheikh speaks from personal experience, given that two of his horses, Strong Suit and Side Glance, were soundly beaten by Sir Henry Cecil’s horse in the Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot in June. He tells me that before the race, Side Glance’s jockey Jimmy Fortune whispered to him: “I’m going to get hold of Frankel’s tail. That is the best way for me to stay with him.”

With that the 23-year-old Sheikh bursts into laughter. Frankel, owned by Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah, may never belong to Fahad but he takes great delight in what the world’s best horse has done for the sport.

“We’re unbelievably blessed to have Frankel. Last year was our first year of sponsorship and on the very first day at the 2,000 Guineas, Frankel won. He has come with us through the journey and, if he finishes off at Ascot with a win, that will be a great year for us.”

Fahad has an integral role in one of the biggest days in the racing calendar but, remarkably, he only went to his first race meeting in 2010.

In fact, when the Sheikh arrived in London six years ago to begin his studies in business administration, his first love was football. His admiration for Arsenal deepened during visits to the Emirates but he says: “I also loved watching racing on television and decided that, when I finished my studies and started working at the family firm, I’d invest a bit in racing. I studied three years’ sales, seeing who buys what and the performance of these horses after they’ve been bought.”

The name of David Redvers came up on every list, prompting Fahad to call the bloodstock agent. But Redvers was in New Zealand and, to complicate matters, Fahad was due to return to Qatar in a fortnight.

“I told him, ‘If you come back to England in two weeks, that’s fine, if not I’ll have to see somebody else.’ Thank God he came over and explained the business to me. I told him, ‘I’ll give you a budget. You buy the horses. You select the trainers. You teach me about racing. This first year is a trial. If you do well, you stay and, at the end of the year, I will invest more. If you don’t, I’m going to find somebody else.’ He was happy to take that challenge and he’s done very well for us.”

So well that a horse Redvers bought in his first year, Dunaden, won the Melbourne Cup last November. By then Fahad had been to his first meeting, the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. “I love the Guineas and Newmarket. My brothers want to win the Derby but my greatest ambition is to win the Guineas.”

Fahad almost purrs as he says this, confident of next year’s 2,000 Guineas. The horse that sustains that dream is Havana Gold. “Three months ago he ran against my horse [Pearl Acclaim] which was odds-on to win. Havana Gold was a 16-1 shot and beat my horse by a length and a half.”

This made such a deep impact he and his advisers monitored the horse and then bought it. “I am excited and I think we have a Guineas winner,” he says.

Fahad’s formula for buying and selling horses sets him apart from other rich foreign owners, most notably Sheikh Mohammed. The Dubai ruler has done much to sustain British flat racing but Fahad says: “We didn’t come into racing to be the top person. We’ve had tons of horses offered to us that went on to win Group One races. But the prices were ridiculous.

“For me, it is not about buying horses at crazy levels. It’s very easy to go and win every race you want but that’s just putting stupid money away.”

Along with this distinctive ownership style, Fahad has also questioned the many things about British racing that have mystified him. “For a person coming from outside, British racing is strange. The 2,000 Guineas is a very strange name. What are guineas? Why are races called Classics? I was surprised to find there was no equivalent of the Breeders’ Cup in America and there wasn’t a final day to end the season.”

Fahad’s questions had a major impact. “What I didn’t know was that the racing authorities were working on a strategy to have a Champions Series with a final day. They’d found that most people didn’t understand the racing season.

“The authorities wanted to make racing more like the Premier League with a final day like the last day of the Premier League season. Once they’d done that they came to us and asked, ‘Are you willing to sponsor this?’” Fahad’s brothers were not into racing but one visit to a racecourse converted them. He says: “You just need to go and see these super-equine athletes racing at 40 miles an hour.

“They loved the atmosphere, the thrill and adrenaline and said to me, ‘Buy us some racehorses.’”

Crucial to their decision to invest £10m was the Queen’s love of the sport. “Without her, racing here is not going to be worth as much as it is now.”

So nothing will please Fahad more than to see the Queen’s Carlton House win the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Saturday, even though that would mean beating his own horse Side Glance. “I do believe in Side Glance if the ground is not heavy. But I would love the Queen to win, that would be great.”

His interest in racing does not mean he has forsaken his old love Arsenal although he confesses: “I’m quite sad that players like Robin van Persie have been sold. Arsenal are not spending enough money. I don’t mean crazy money but they need to reinvest.”

Not that he would be prepared to put in any QIPCO money, at least not at the moment. “I’ve got too much on my plate right now with racing. I don’t have time to take on another sport. Maybe in the future, who knows?”

Perhaps, if he finds a horse to match Frankel, he will then turn to Arsenal to see if he can help them win a trophy.


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo