x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Carlton House has proved to be a gift that is fit for a Queen

The Epsom Derby favourite was a gift from Sheikh Mohammed to the British monarch. Geoffrey Riddle dwells on this special relationship.

Sheikh Mohammed and the Queen's families enjoy a special relationship intertwined with their love for the horses.
Sheikh Mohammed and the Queen's families enjoy a special relationship intertwined with their love for the horses.

There are 101 Derby races worldwide, but the 2,400 metre Classic, along the twists and turns of Epsom, is the original. It is a test like no other.

The Kentucky Derby and the French equivalent are run over 2,000m. The Japanese Derby has only recently been opened to foreign challengers.

The challenge at Epsom, however, is complete.

Few three-year-old horses can assemble the balance, the combination of speed and stamina, and tack in all on to sheer class so early in their careers. Since 1780, the winning horse has raced 800m uphill before sweeping down Tattenham Corner on a camber into the long downhill straight to immortality.

With around 25,000 thoroughbred foals born every year in England alone, the chances of making the final line-up of 15 or so on the first Saturday in June is remote. To win the race as a trainer, jockey or owner is sublimity itself.

It puts into context, therefore, the extraordinary gift of the likeliest winner of this afternoon's race, Carlton House, given by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to Queen Elizabeth II of England.

For Sheikh Mohammed to give such a present to the Queen is a significant gesture, and one which transcends the boundaries of the sport. A portion of the prize money to today's race alone would be present enough, standing at £1.25 million (Dh7.5m). Add on the prestige of owning a Derby winner, the subsequent hopes of winning further races and the breeding opportunities, and the Sheikh's munificence has exceeded even his most generous of levels.

Sheikh Mohammed has previous form in this department. In 2007 he purchased, from trainer Jim Bolger, New Approach, a Galileo colt that had cost the Irishman €430,000 (Dh2.3m) at Goffs the year before. The Ruler of Dubai gave the colt to his wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, and New Approach subsequently won the 2008 Derby before going on to victory in the Irish and English Champion Stakes.

In the early 1990s, Sheikh Mohammed gave his cousin, Sheikh Mohammed Obaid, the broodmare High Tern. With her fifth foal she produced High Rise, who won the Derby in 1998 before being transferred to Godolphin for a campaign in Dubai which included a victory in the Dubai City Of Gold.

To understand the process which led the Sheikh to give Carlton House to the Queen it is necessary to go back to the summer of 2009 when a three-year-old colt bred by the Queen called Highland Glen refused to enter the stalls at Goodwood racecourse.

As a son of Montjeu, he was entitled to have his quirks if the payback was victory, but his latent talent was yet to be discovered due to his inability to handle starting gates. Sheikh Mohammed wanted to purchase the colt, believing him to be perfect for racing in Dubai and contacted the Queen's racing representatives to make inquiries.

Highland Glen had been gelded and the queen was acutely aware of the potential embarrassment the horse might cause should he never win again. She thus gave the Ruler of Dubai the horse as a present. In return, Sheikh Mohammed scoured his Darley stock and sent the queen a batch of yearlings that arrived in November 2009. From the very first moment it was clear that one stood out above the other three, and that was Carlton House, the son of former Dubai World Cup winner Street Cry.

"When the yearlings arrived, I had to describe them to the Queen," said John Warren, the Queen's bloodstock adviser. "He was a lovely yearling and beautifully bred. He was the pick and he ticked all the boxes from the word go, which is why we sent him to Sir Michael Stoute."

Carlton House finished last season with a nine-length demolition of 17 other rivals in October to fuel winter dreams of Classic aspirations. Due to a dry spring, which resulted in problematic training schedules for many of Newmarket's finest, the colt emerged at the beginning of this season somewhat disappointing.

"I don't think he wintered particularly well," Warren said. "In November it was clear he was going through a growing phase. He had the skeletal frame but he didn't have the sort of muscle development on him that he has now got. In March the horse started to flush up, and was a bit hairy, and Sir Michael's horses were behind. He did not look game ready."

For one so inexperienced, Stoute initially wanted to run Carlton House in the Sandown Classic Trial, won in April by Godolphin's Genius Beast. The race was to act as a marker to see where Carlton House stood in the Derby pecking order but Warren received a call five days before the race with some exciting news.

"Michael rang me and said: 'I am going to pull him and we are going to go straight to the Dante." That was when I thought, 'Crickey, he really is not just dealing with a horse that might win a trial, he is training a horse that might win the Derby.' That was an exciting turning point. I've had to take things a little more seriously since then," Warren said.

The Dante Stakes is a key trial and has provided the winner of the Derby four times in the past seven years. It also acted as the stepping stone for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid's Erhaab in 1994.

In this year's race Carlton House put in a remarkable performance under Ryan Moore. The three-times champion jockey had to battle with his mount, forcing him to settle, and when the slightest of gaps appeared at the business end of the race Carlton House went through to win without hesitation and without the need for Moore to reach for his whip.

Warren was on the telephone to the Queen during the race. "Goodness, he's gone straight through that gap," she gasped. Since then, Warren has reported that Carlton House has filled in all of the missing angles that differentiate a champion thoroughbred from the merely ordinary. Stoute is famous for being a patient trainer and his tender handling of Carlton House seems to have paid off. Last week the colt put in a performance on the gallops that has set tongues wagging.

"It was a routine piece of work," Warren said. "Two horses in the distance, a long way away. I could see the other horse in trouble and Carlton House just smoothly pulled clear as they came past us. It looked like a very nice piece of work, but nothing important.

"At breakfast, Ryan Moore said, 'Wow, we went quickly there. He has so much speed. Didn't you see? It was so easy'."

Sheikh Mohammed's relationship with the Queen consists of perhaps two or three meetings a year at the Derby and at Royal Ascot, where the proximity of their boxes means Her Majesty often receives the Sheikh for afternoon tea. His association with the royal family stretches back decades and recently released cables by US diplomats indicate the sheikhs in the UAE were "enthralled" by Charles and Diana on their visit to the UAE in 1989. Their families are entwined with racehorses, and to hear Warren discuss the Queen's passion for the sport is similar to any member of the Godolphin team talk about the founder of their organisation. "She wants to know absolutely everything. When a foal is born we send her all the details of the height, weight and time of birth. We also send her a photograph," said Warren. "It is like she is a matron to all of them. She has never told me her favourite horse because it is a bit like discussing her favourite child."

There can be no doubt that if Carlton House were to win the Derby today he would enter a special place in the Queen's heart. It is 102 years since Minoru triumphed for Edward VII, the last ruling monarch to have a Derby winner, and since 1953, when Aureole finished second in her Coronation year, the Queen has had eight losers in the race.

For Sheikh Mohammed, it has been a similar journey of frustration. His maroon-and-white colours have raced 20 times in the Derby without success. Lammtarra won for the Dubai-based operation in 1995, but raced in the green-and-white colours of Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum. Since then Godolphin have sent out 22 runners, but are still to follow up in the colt's Classic.

This year they rely on Ocean War. "We will, of course, still be trying to do our best to beat Carlton House," said Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager.

"Carlton House's dam [Talented] is one of the first mares Godolphin ever had, so it is a very close family to him and he is very excited about the possibility of it all."

Sheikh Mohammed concurred. "It is a weekend of exciting horse racing for Godolphin, but the highlight will be if the Queen of England's Carlton House wins the Epsom Derby," he said.