x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sheikh Mohammed's reach spans all corners of horse racing

UAE horsemen are growing in stature all over the world due in large to the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has led the UAE horsemen to the forefront of thoroughbred racing around the world. Courtesy of RacingFotos.com
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has led the UAE horsemen to the forefront of thoroughbred racing around the world. Courtesy of RacingFotos.com

Jane Jacobs, the urban writer and activist, believed that cultures and cities rose to power and then faded in a cyclical manner. In Dark Age Ahead, her final work in 2004, she supposed that Western civilisation was on a downwards spiral caused by cultural changes.

It seems the traditional power bases in horse racing may well be heading in the same direction.

Although the prestige and history of the sport lie firmly in Europe, there is strong evidence that the balance of power is shifting as the influence of the UAE's horse-racing Sheikhs grows stronger.

Racing's finances are in serious trouble in many of the major strongholds - Ireland has suffered horribly, American tracks are threatened with closure, Japan's tragic tsunami is the latest in a long line of troubles affecting the proud racing nation and England, the cradle of the modern thoroughbred, is in precipitous decline.

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Against this bleak landscape, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and other Dubai royals have continued to expand their racing operations, with deeper investment not just in the Emirates but across the world.

The health of their efforts in racing and breeding are in stark contrast to the struggles in many other racing jurisdictions.

In England, where once the House of Commons was given the day off for the Epsom Derby, the chamber was virtually empty for a debate in January on the future of the sport. The debate was led by Matthew Hancock, the Member of Parliament for West Suffolk, an area which houses Newmarket, the headquarters of British racing.

Although English racing remains in football's shadow, more than 100,000 people are employed in the industry, which contributes £3.5 billion (Dh21bn) to the UK economy each year.

But Hancock suggested the industry is "broken" and said the levy - a tax on bookmakers that contributes 10.75 per cent of their gross profits to the sport - had fallen 35 per cent in the past two years from £100 million to £35 million.

Even before this dramatic slump, he claimed, Britain was ranked 38th in the world prize-money stakes, a long way behind the likes of Dubai and Hong Kong, but also behind America, Australia and Japan. The Epsom Derby, one of England's most prestigious races, ranked 36th in the Daily Racing Form's list of richest thoroughbred flat races in 2010.

In Ireland, prize money has fallen to 2002 levels and it has been estimated that 2,500 jobs have been lost.

The issues that affect Ireland are from the top down, too. There are fewer horses being bred, bought and trained while more are being sent to abattoirs. Syndicated ownership, a healthy indication of grass-roots involvement, has dropped 20 per cent.

The lone European country where racing is booming is France. Racing officials there announced in December that their prize money was to increase by three per cent to £175m.

Along with Australia and Hong Kong, France was the only other major racing jurisdiction with betting as its core provider of funding that was able to do so for 2011.

Not only are the French the leaders in prize money in Europe in 2011, but France Galop, the sport's governing body in the country, revealed in January a two per cent increase to the reserve fund which the organisation keeps back in case of a downturn in future income.

On the racetrack French horses are in rude health, too, as the victories of Gloria de Campeao, in the Dubai World Cup, Goldikova, in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and Americain, in the Melbourne Cup last year, testify.

So good is French prize money this year that British trainers have set up satellite operations in an attempt to pillage the country's coffers.

The day after Twice Over won Round Three of the Al Maktoum Challenge earlier this month in Dubai, Mark Johnston, who trains in Yorkshire in the north of England, made a raid on Deauville. He was happy to receive a cheque for €9,750 (Dh50,785) after Crown Counsel, owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, finished second, and Tartan Gigha took third.

"It clearly makes more sense to travel to France than to race in Britain at present, but the situation is not sustainable in the long term," Johnson said.

If the situation continues, he said, French racing would be the ultimate beneficiary.

The French breeding industry offers huge premiums for French-bred horses and Johnson warned that it might only be a matter of time before British owners realise that it is more lucrative to have horses bred and raced there.

It seems that the power shift in Europe towards France has already begun as Goffs, the sales house, recently let a part of its business go across the English Channel.

American racing is not faring much better.

The famed Triple Crown could be in serious jeopardy and in January The National ran a story that billed the future of the series to be "as shaky as an unbroken filly".

Churchill Downs, in Kentucky, Pimlico Racecourse, in Maryland, and Belmont Park, in New York, the venerable tracks that stage the jewels of US racing, all endured financial dire straits last year, and Hollywood Park, in California, is on the cusp of closing.

In Japan, the country's racing coffers were in serious decline even before the tragic tsunami which damaged several racetracks including the courses at Nakayama and Fukushima City.

Although Japan still boasts one of the most dedicated racing audiences on the planet, interest in the sport is waning.

The turnover on the Japanese centralised betting facility has fallen by approximately five per cent every year for the past 10 years.

Given that 15 per cent of their turnover goes back to directly fund racing, and the Japan Racing Association's (JRA) activities, it is a worrying situation.

For the first time the JRA is actively seeking sponsorship for some of their feature races such as the Japan Cup.

"The current state of racing in Japan is not very good," Shingo Soma, of the JRA, said. "Although times are bad in Japan, we have tried to keep prize money stable.

"This does not mean we have lost fixtures, rather we have taken money away from some of the lower grade races. During the autumn we have a Group 1 race every weekend, but if we were to group them together on one card, like Dubai World Cup, we would lose betting turnover because the expectation keeps punters interested."

All of these struggling racing jurisdictions have one significant thing in common - a reliance on betting income, which creates a revenue model that is very different from other major sports.

The big five European football leagues, for example, break down their revenue to roughly 45 per cent broadcast rights, 30 per cent commercial and 25 per cent gate receipts, which is broadly similar to that of the National Football League in America.

Racing in countries where betting is legal, by comparison, draws 65 per cent of revenue from betting, 20 per cent from owners, and only 15 per cent from broadcast and gate receipts.

The racing landscape in countries that do now allow betting - such as the UAE and China - is very different.

Racing in Dubai is almost entirely dependent on the nourishment of Sheikh Mohammed and he has supported the sport extravagantly.

The grandstand at Meydan Racecourse is reported to have cost US$1.25bn, and the entire facility cost an estimated $2.2bn. In contrast, the recent renovation of Ascot in England was $302m, while the Curragh in Ireland has scarcely had a lick of paint for more than 30 years.

Dubai racing was set up with the international market in mind, and it has thoroughly succeeded in that regard. Both the World Cup and the Dubai Duty Free tomorrow received more than 300 entries from 18 countries, clear evidence that racing's focus is moving from America and Europe.

As well as offering big prize money, the Al Maktoum family's impact on the breeding industry is immense. Ten of the top 30 flat sires in Britain in 2010 were owned by the family, and eight of the top 30 in Europe. The shared dominance of European breeding by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley operation - alongside Coolmore - helps to keep 40,000 people working in the industry.

It is not only in Europe, however, where the influence of Sheikh Mohammed is keenly felt. Although Darley sires are yet to make a heavy impact on the American market, both Street Cry and Street Sense have given the organisation a foothold. The purchase of the 106-acre Stonerside Stud in Kentucky in 2007, for a reported $17.5m, will also help increase market share.

In Australia, five of the top 10 sires in 2010 were from Darley. Prize money levels there have been on the increase during the past three seasons, and Sheikh Mohammed moved to secure a dominant hand in the Australian breeding industry in 2008 when he bought the influential Woodlands Empire for around $460m.

In that deal, Darley took control of stables in Sydney and Melbourne along with two studs, two pre-training complexes and more than 1,000 horses. With more than 12,000 acres in Britain, 4,000 acres in Ireland and significant tracts of land in Japan, Sheikh Mohammed is a vital cog in the worldwide racing and breeding industry.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid's contribution through his racing interests and Shadwell breeding operation is vast. The UAE Minister of Finance owns eight stud farms around the world, with landmark former thoroughbreds such as Dayjur, Nashwan, Unfuwain, Marju, Invasor and Swain all serving with distinguished credit down the years.

Although Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid's racing interests were never as large as his younger brothers, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan, his purchase of Gainsborough stud in 1981 helped to crystallise his interest in racing. Sheikh Maktoum added to that 1,300 acres of stud farms in Ireland and in 1984 built the Gainsborough Farm in Kentucky.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid has had more of an impact in the UAE, building Jebel Ali racecourse. That said, the youngest of the four has a significant string in training in England as well as in the UAE with Dhruba Selvaratnam.

When the smaller UAE owners, such as those grouped under the Rabbah bloodstock banner, are added, the impression is that the Emirates will continue to bolster the world racing economy.

Unless the governing bodies in other countries sort out their battles and revamp their revenue streams, the racing world will likely continue to edge closer to the precipice, with the Dubai royal family trying to hold it all back.

 

sports@thenational.ae