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Tuesday, July 23
Prince Ahmed dies of heart attack



JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Ahmed bin Salman was racing's prince charming -- whether he was kissing the nose of his horse in the winner's circle, joking with jockeys about how famous he'd make them, or bantering with other owners as he outbid them for another prospect.

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Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, right, became the first Arab owner to win the Kentucky Derby.

Monday, the genial owner of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem died of a heart attack at age 43, shocking the thoroughbred racing world from boardrooms to barns.

A member of the Saudi royal family, Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was a nephew of King Fahd and head of a publishing empire.

But horses were his lifelong passion, and War Emblem's wire-to-wire victory at the Kentucky Derby in May made Ahmed the first Arab to win America's most famous thoroughbred race.

His gregarious spirit and frequent laughter made him popular among jockeys and trainers, including Bob Baffert, who trained War Emblem and 2001 horse of the year Point Given for the prince.

''I'm in shock,'' Baffert told the industry publication The Blood Horse. ''When you go through a Triple Crown together, you get really close. He was like family. His passion for horses was incredible -- he lived and breathed them.''

Point Given gave the prince's Bradbury, Calif.-based stable, The Thoroughbred Corp., its first Triple Crown victories in the Preakness and Belmont stakes last year.

Ahmed became known for buying the top horses at the annual sales in Kentucky. He did not attend this summer's yearling sales due to what sale officials said were business demands in Riyadh.

Although Ahmed said he didn't bet on his horses, he was known to gamble with his thoroughbred purchases. He bought War Emblem for $900,000 just 11 days before the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact that other owners and trainers were scared off because the colt had bone chips.

''It's been my dream,'' Ahmed said after War Emblem won at Churchill Downs. ''I love you guys in America.''

War Emblem won the Derby, the Preakness and then stumbled as the heavy favorite at the start of the Belmont Stakes, denying racing its first Triple Crown winner in 24 years.

''I think this is one of the best investments I ever made in my life, besides buying oil in Arabia,'' the U.S.-educated Ahmed said after War Emblem won the Preakness.

Point Given, though, was perhaps his finest horse, winning the 2001 Preakness and Belmont and being named horse of the year. Point Given had finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

''I'm shocked and saddened,'' said jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Point Given to victories in the Preakness and Belmont stakes in 2001. ''We were very close friends outside of racing. He was a guy who loved to laugh and loved a good time.''

The colt was unexpectedly retired last year after he strained a tendon in his left foreleg. Point Given earned $3,968,500, with nine victories in 13 career starts.

Point Given's success helped The Thoroughbred Corp. rank second in North America last year with earnings of $8,000,763, with 66 victories from 367 starters.

He also owned Spain, horse racing's career female money-winner.

Some of Ahmed's other major horses were Officer, who won three graded stakes last year; Anees, who won the 1999 Breeders' Cup Juvenile; and Sharp Cat, who won all four of her starts in 1998.

One of Ahmed's earliest major victories was in England's Epsom Derby with Oath in 1999.

A large man with a trim black mustache, Ahmed had been in love with horses since he was a child. A recreational rider, he often would visit sales in Europe and North America and closely follow the details of his stables, including selection of broodmares and stallions.

''He was very passionate about horses and about racing,'' said Robert Clay, owner of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky. ''He had a wild enthusiasm that was infectious. When one of his horses was running in the lead, he'd be screaming and jumping. ... You couldn't help but get excited right along with him.

Ahmed purchased Sharp Cat for $900,000. At the time, she was the highest-priced unraced filly to sell at auction. Sharp Cat went on to earn $2,032,575, with 15 victories in 22 starts.

D. Wayne Lukas, who trained the fillies Sharp Cat and Spain for Ahmed, said the prince always made race day fun.

''He never took himself very seriously,'' Lukas said. ''He enjoyed the way he was accepted in the racing community. People sought him out. When he won the Kentucky Derby, he was on a high for about a week. He loved the way the American people and racing accepted him, especially this year.''

Churchill Downs president Thomas Meeker mourned Ahmed as a ''remarkable horsemen and true fan.''

''The horses he campaigned proved themselves champions on and off the track, and their star power generated much positive attention for our sport,'' Meeker said. ''The prince's commitment to racing was unwavering, and his infectious enthusiasm for the game will be greatly missed.''

Ahmed's father, Prince Salman, is the powerful governor of Riyadh who turned the city into a modern metropolis that boasts some of the ritziest malls in the Middle East.

After pursuing military studies, and later social studies in California, the prince became a businessman. In the late 1980s, he became chairman of the board of a publishing company, the Saudi Research and Marketing Group.

He helped turn the business that was worth $90 million into one with capital of $160 million and total assets in excess of $533 million. It owns 17 publications, including the respected London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and the English-language daily Arab News.

''On a personal level he was the kindest person I've ever seen -- he was a prince without the airs,'' said Khalid Al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of the Arab News.

The prince often displayed a keen sense of humor. While thanking American racing organizations for voting Point Given as horse of the year in February, he also expressed gratitude for his wife's patience, adding: ''And by the way, she is my only wife.''

Lukas recalled the prince's lighthearted reaction to a death threat at the 1996 Breeders' Cup in Canada, where Sharp Cat ran.

''He said, 'You stay real close to me. They may try to shoot me, but they would never shoot America's No. 1 trainer,''' Lukas remembered.

Ahmed is survived by a wife and five children. He will be buried in Riyadh on Tuesday.

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Jason Levin, author of "From the Desert to the Derby" describes how the death of Prince Ahmed will affect the world of horse racing.
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