This is a story of two halves, some 275 years apart, but reaching into the future. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...
Godolphin the horse
Every modern thoroughbred horse can have its ancestry traced back to one of three horses brought to England around the turn of the eighteenth century: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian. The horses were named, in a terribly original fashion, after their owners (Captain Byerly, Thomas Darley, and Lord Godolphin), and the intention was to breed them with native racehorses in order to produce faster, stronger racing specimens by combining the strength and stamina of the native beast with the turn of foot of the import.
The Godolphin Arabian's history is surrounded by a degree of mystery and legend until he was brought to the United Kingdom in 1729. He was probably born around 1724 in Tunis. From there, he was presented to the French Royal Court as a gift. However, the horse's temperament won him few admirers amongst the grooms, and it is alleged that he pulled water carts through Paris until he was somehow spotted by Edward Coke and brought to Coke's Derbyshire stud, Longford Hall. Does this sound similar to Black Beauty to you? Here, he was simply referred to as The Arabian. Whether or not he did drag water through the Parisian streets is unconfirmed, but the Longford Hall studbook indicates that he covered a mare called Roxana in 1731. This produced a colt, Lath. Lath went on to be one of the most successful racehorses of his generation.
Coke died in 1733. He left his mares and foals to Francis, Lord Godolphin, whilst his stallions were bequeathed to Roger Williams. Nevertheless, Lord Godolphin later acquired Coke's Arabian stallion and moved him to his Babraham stud, hence The Arabian taking the name Godolphin. It was at Babraham that Godolphin lived out his prolific career as a stallion, siring some 90 foals, until his death in 1753.
Godolphin was not an especially tall animal, standing at around 15 hands, but was well proportioned with powerful shoulders and quarters, 'legs of iron', and a short back. The majority of his progeny stood taller than him. His colouring was said to be brown bay. Despite his fiery Arabian temperament, he was kept company by a cat, Grimalkin. I'm afraid I don't know anything about the cat's temperament, but I'm thinking that it might have been a fairly stubborn thing!
Godolphin the organisation
Fast-forward roughly 275 years, and Godolphin is one of the biggest names in the horseracing world. It does not just refer to the ancestor of the modern thoroughbred, it is now one of the most successful racing operations in existence. Its royal blue colours are some of the most famous, its horses are some of the most famous, its jockeys are some of the most famous. Had I mentioned that it was successful?
Traditionally, the racing world works pretty much like this: horses are owned by — yet again another original term — owners; these owners pay fees to trainers who, uh-hmm, train the horses. Trainers can train horses for any number of different owners, in which case, they probably own their stables themselves. There are some 'private trainers' who train for only one owner, and the owner normally owns the stables, too. Generally, barring a falling-out between owner and trainer, horses stay in one environment for as long as they have the same owner.
Until the 1980s, racing in Great Britain was dominated by owner-breeders from influential, landed families: the Royal family, the Duke of Devonshire, the Earl of Derby, and Lord Howard de Walden, to mention a few. Oh, and the Aga Khan. Granted, he's not British, but he spends enough time here. Then a new set of maroon and white colours began to grow in prestige, and a new breeding operation called Darley (the historical resonance is almost too much to bear!) began to assume dominance. The man behind it was His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Oxford-educated son of the Emir of Dubai.
Initially, Sheikh Mohammed adhered to the traditional model of owning horses. He owned and bred them, and let others train them. In 1988, he bought Stanley House Stables from the aging Lord Derby, and installed John Gosden there as his private trainer. However, the Sheikh maintained his working relationship with just about all of the top trainers in the UK, and Gosden was able to train horses for other owners, too.
Then, in 1992, things began to change.
The Sheikh, in conjunction with his brother Sheikh Maktoum (who died in January 2006), believed that there was a better way to train horses, and at the same time, they would be able to raise the profile of their emirate. Along came Godolphin.
The theory behind Godolphin is quite simple: it aims to be the most successful racing operation in the world by ensuring that it has the best horses, trained in optimum conditions, by the best staff. In order to achieve its aims, Godolphin abandoned the traditional racing model. The owning and training elements were merged, and no longer were horses to remain in one place for training purposes. No, the Godolphin horses live a jetset lifestyle. Their summer base is Newmarket and rather than lose their carefully generated condition over the cold, miserable English winter, they are flown to Dubai on the Goldolphin Boeing 747 for some sunshine. Not a bad life, eh? For the world of racing, where change is a dirty, dirty word, the shock waves are still resonating.
Staffing and Organisation
First comes the senior management team. It consists of Sheikh Mohammed, and until his untimely death Sheikh Maktoum, the racing manager, who was initially a guy called Anthony Stroud, but is now Simon Crisford, and nominal trainer Saeed bin Suroor. These guys make the decisions about the training and the racing programme of each horse. That's a lot of decisions.
All the grooms are Pakistani. They are responsible for the personal care of two or three horses each, but they are not expected to ride them. Riding falls into two categories: training and racing. In training, the horses are ridden by work riders and middle managers who are an international bunch: British, Irish, French, Italian, Australian, and American. When it comes to racing, Godolphin has two retained jockeys: the Italian Frankie Dettori, and the Australian, Kerrin Macavoy.
Oh, and by the way, for clarity's sake, everyone speaks English.
The transfer of the Sheikhs' horses from the traditional owner-trainer model to the Godolphin operation did not take place overnight. Instead, there was a gradual shift. Trainers would be training two year olds owned by Sheikhs Mohammed and Maktoum, only for them to be taken away at the end of their two year old seaon, flown to Dubai, and then return as Godolphin horses the following spring, where they would be installed in Moulton Paddocks stables, in Newmarket. Gosden continued to train at Stanley House Stables as Sheikh Mohammed's private trainer until 1999. It's speculated that Gosden terminated his contract with the Sheikh because he became peeved at putting in the ground work with the two year olds, only to lose them as three year olds, when they would be eligible to run in the most valuable and prestigious races. Well, wouldn't you be a bit narked? To a certain extent, this still happens; however, after Gosden quit Stanley House Stables, Godolphin was able to move in there, in addition to Moulton Paddocks, and assume training two year olds, too.
The majority of the Godolphin horses are bred by Sheikh Mohammed under the auspices of Darley Stud. However, he is not afraid to spend money on them, either. No, he'll spend millions on unraced yearlings at the sales in Keeneland, in Ireland, or at Tattersall's in Newmarket. If someone else owns a successful horse that he wants to add to the Godolphin contingent, he'll make that owner an offer that cannot be refused. Godolphin really is about being the best.
Godolphin's Dubai base is just outside of the industrial suburb Al Quoz. It is an entire complex: stabling, living quarters, offices, equine swimming pools, feedmills, and training tracks. The horses live in American-style barns, whilst their grooms also live on-site. It must be said that the rest of the staff do not live on-site, they live in serviced appartments in downtown Dubai. The feedmill produces food for all Godolphin horses wherever they happen to be in the world. Yes, that's right, when they move to Newmarket for the summer, their feed is flown over from Dubai. Horses in Australia for the Melbourne Cup? Their food is flown there from Dubai. There are both grass and dirt training tracks. Aha, a perfect turf track is maintained in the middle of the desert. This is one expensive hobby in which the Sheikh indulges.
Towards the end of April, when the Dubai climate is becoming rather more than just warm, the Dubai Racing Carnival has been and gone, and the UK racing season is beginning to warm-up, the Godolphin contingent heads back to Newmarket. The horses are installed in either Moulton Paddocks or Stanley House Stables, (which have now been renamed Godolphin Stables), with their training tracks, swimming pools, and offices. It's not just the horses that are peripatetic, but the staff, too. Working for Godolphin requires spending six months in the UK, and six months in Dubai. The Pakistani grooms again live on-site, whilst the other staff return to their homes.
From April until October, Godolphin attacks the European racing circuit with every horse in its armoury. It expects Classic winners, failure at Royal Ascot is not an option, Group Race winners are par-for-the-course. In addition, horses are dispatched to Australia, America, Canada, Japan, and Singapore. If you have to be in it to win it, Godolphin is there.
Is it worth it?
Godolphin's prime objective is to be the best, but do all the millions spent on the horses and their environment, the army of grooms, the cavalry of work riders, the cabinet of middle-managers deliver? The answer is yes, and no. Since 1994, and Godolphin's first Group One winner, Balanchine in the Oaks, to their latest Group One success with Electrocutionist in the Dubai World Cup, they have had 125 Group One winners, and a total of 379 Group and Listed Race winners. That's unparalled. Some of the most successful horses of the modern era have run in Godolphin's colours: Dubai Milennium, Daylami, Doyen. However, they do not always top the Trainers' Table in the UK, and Sheikh Mohammed has not yet won either the Epsom Derby or the Kentucky Derby. Although the Godolphin website does mention that Goldolphin won the 1995 Epsom Derby with Lammtarra, he was owned by Saeed bin Maktoum al Maktoum, and raced in his green and white colours. My dad and I still have nightmares about things in green coming up the outside, but that's another story.
Initially, it was feared that Godolphin's success would cause European racing to implode. However, it needs competition in order to achieve its aims, and it seems to have successfully ignited a new flame of hope and desire in the racing world. The traditional trainers and old owner-breeders still crave success, and newer owners want to beat Godolphin; Godolphin still wants to be the best.
Staff are prepared to live life in two countries, and work twelve-and-half days in fourteen. Ask Sheikh Mohammed if it is worth it, and the answer is emphatically: 'Yes!' Maybe that is what that counts.
Riding into the sunset:
- Life with a Godolphin employee