Paying the Price
As the Kentucky Derby neared two weeks ago, the buzz building along Churchill Downs’ backstretch was that this might be Sheik Mohammed’s turn to win the race.
The stars weren’t necessarily aligned, but the Dubai-takes-the-Derby theorists were mounting their case: Essence Of Dubai was the only horse in the field to have already won at the 11/4-mile Derby distance; his trainer, Saeed Suroor, said that this was the best horse the sheik had ever sent to Churchill, and the field, considered less than formidable, lacked a stick-out favorite. There was even a balance-the-scales hook: The sheik’s star filly, Tempera, who had been one of the favorites for the Kentucky Oaks, had died five days before the race.
An Arab won the Derby, all right, but it wasn’t Sheik Mohammed. Essence Of Dubai, breaking to the right and bumping Medaglia d’Oro leaving the gate, never reached contention before finishing ninth. The winner, War Emblem with a rare wire-to-wire Derby trip, belonged to Ahmed Salman, a brash Saudi Arabian prince who is six years Sheik Mohammed’s junior. Now War Emblem will aim for the second jewel in the Triple Crown in the Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico.
Salman, 43, is not exactly a bargain-basement shopper, and certainly no Derby neophyte. He had Point Given, the beaten favorite, last year and War Emblem was his fourth Derby starter. Even so, Sheik Mohammed has been chasing the roses longer. Sheik Mohammed ran two horses--one the overrated Arazi--in the 1992 Derby, two years before the germination of Salman’s California-based Thoroughbred Corp. Salman didn’t run a horse in the Derby until 1999.
Whereas Sheik Mohammed paid a reported $5 million for a horse--Worldly Manner--who finished seventh in the 1999 Derby, Salman bought in this year at a cost of $900,000 for a 90% interest in War Emblem, a colt purchased only 23 days before the race. But it’s not as if Salman was winning on the cheap. At auction in 2000 and 2001, he had spent more than $17 million on horses of this 3-year-old generation, only none of them panned out.
Teased along by Point Given’s frustrating fifth-place finish a year ago, Salman had his antennae up for a last-gasp purchase, and after watching on television from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 6, the day War Emblem won the Illinois Derby, he empowered trainer Bob Baffert and Thoroughbred Corp.'s hard-nosed racing manager, Richard Mulhall, to fly to Kentucky for an inspection.
War Emblem’s original trainer, Bobby Springer, was candid about the colt’s ankle and knee problems, but the prince was undeterred.
“He’s got [bone] chips,” Baffert told Salman. “He won’t vet out.”
“Go get him,” Salman said.
After the Derby, it was easy to say, so Salman said it: “I thought the price was extremely reasonable.”
Then he added: “I’ve been breeding horses, I’ve been buying yearlings and [unraced] 2-year-olds in training, and I’ve even been buying horses in Argentina. Just about everything you can imagine. So when you get the chance ... I know people are saying that we just bought the horse before the Derby, but I think it’s much smarter to buy a horse four weeks before the race than it is to try to raise a Derby winner.”
Like Sheik Mohammed, Salman is more than a patron of the equine arts. The prince is a major international publisher--his daily, Asharq Al-Awsat, is said to be the leading newspaper of the Arab world--but he spends a lot of time at his small farm in Bradbury, and he and Mulhall, who trained horses for 36 years, are familiar seatmates as they ogle horseflesh, pore over pedigrees and compare notes at the high-priced horse sales. A few years ago, they hitched their wagon to Baffert, who was already a two-time winner of the Derby and a short-order Triple Crown mainstay.
“The prince is a horseman,” said Gary Stevens, who rode Point Given to wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes after that crushing setback in the Derby. “He understands horses and race strategy.”
Point Given, whose only 2001 loss was in the Derby, later was voted the Eclipse Award as best 3-year-old.
Salman has won three Breeders’ Cup races, in the Distaff with Jewel Princess and Spain, and in the Juvenile with Anees. The day before this year’s Derby, Spain won a stakes at Churchill and, with a total of $3.3 million, surpassed Serena’s Song as the female record holder for career earnings. Another of Salman’s fillies was Sharp Cat, who was retired in 1998 with $2 million in purses.
Wayne Lukas, who trains Spain for Salman, also originally trained Sharp Cat, before she and most of the Thoroughbred Corp. horses went to Wally Dollase. After Dollase lost Salman as a client--in an emotional, barn-clearing display at Dollase’s Santa Anita barn in March 1999--Alex Hassinger Jr. became Salman’s prime trainer, but after winning the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Anees, he also moved on.
A lawsuit by Dollase against Thoroughbred Corp., for the money he claimed was owed for the balance of his contract, was settled out of court.
“My problems were with Mulhall, not the prince,” Dollase said Tuesday. “The prince was an OK guy. People who say that he bought the Derby are just jealous. I think there’s a lot of resentment toward all of the Arabs because they go to the sales, buy the cream and then beat us with it. But the prince bought War Emblem and pulled off the Derby, so I say, more power to him.”
In the wake of Sept. 11, Salman, who is a nephew of King Fahd, donated the cost of one breeding season to Point Given--$125,000--to the New York Heroes Fund, but he will not be drawn into using the Triple Crown as a political forum. At least one columnist tarred War Emblem’s Derby win by writing that 15 of the 19 terrorists on Sept. 11 had held Saudi passports, and trainer John Ward Jr., who will try to beat the Derby winner with Booklet in the Preakness, noted that there was not “the usual emotional outburst” at Churchill Downs when Salman’s horse won.
“I am a businessman,” Salman said after the Derby. “I leave [U.S.-Arab relations] up to our politicians and American politicians.”
Lukas will run Table Limit as well as Proud Citizen in the Preakness. Mike Smith, second with Proud Citizen in the Kentucky Derby, will be aboard again, and Stevens has the assignment on Table Limit.... With Sunday Break, who would have been the third or fourth choice, not running, the Preakness field is at 13.
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*--* Hitting a Double Prince Ahmed Salman is the fourth owner to win both the English Derby and the Kentucky Derby. The English pronounce their race “Darby.” Here’s the list of “Darby"-Derby doubles for owners: Year Horse Race PAUL MELLON 1971 Mill Reef English Derby 1993 Sea Hero Kentucky Derby JOHN GALBREATH 1963 Chateaugay Kentucky Derby 1967 Proud Clarion Kentucky Derby 1972 Roberto English Derby MICHAEL TABOR 1995 Thunder Gulch Kentucky Derby 2001 Galileo English Derby AHMED SALMAN 1999 Oath English Derby 2002 War Emblem Kentucky Derby