Sheik Mohammed: 'Watch for us'
By Beth Harris
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Perhaps not this year or next, but one of these first Saturdays in May, Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum plans to be in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby. He'll make his third attempt at winning America's most famous horse race with Express Tour, purchased for a reported $1.1 million.
The black-bearded sheik attracted attention as he and his small entourage walked the backside at Churchill Downs. They stood out in their bright blue Godolphin Racing jackets and caps.
Even trainer Bob Baffert, whose Point Given is the early favorite to win the 127th Derby, paid a visit. He brought his mother to visit Sheik Mohammed's barn located in a far corner of the stable area, where they posed for pictures.
The sheik had planned to bring Express Tour and Street Cry to the Derby. However, Street Cry injured his right front ankle during a jog around Churchill Downs nearly two weeks, and was forced to drop out.
Street Cry, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at Churchill, was considered the better of the two Godolphin Racing contenders.
"I wish we had Street Cry beside him," the sheik said. "We'd be stronger."
Express Tour missed four days of training three weeks ago with a bruised hoof. But he has rebounded, and was on the track to work in front of the sheik Friday.
Sheik Mohammed has his own ideas on the best way to win the Derby. He believes it's possible with a horse trained in Dubai, where he is a member of the ruling family in the United Arab Emirates.
In March, Express Tour won the United Arab Emirates Derby by a head despite being passed in midstretch by Street Cry. Unlike the other 16 Derby starters, Express Tour didn't run in any of the prep races in the United States.
"I know many of you don't agree," the sheik said. "I'll try to prove you wrong."
It wouldn't be the first time.
In 1994, Sheik Mohammed took horses from the pasture areas of England to the desert of Dubai to create a racing industry there.
He and his brother, Sheik Maktoum al Maktoum, put together the Godolphin operation, which quickly found success and now is a major power around the world. Saeed bin Suroor was England's leading trainer in 1996 and '99.
One of the Maktoums' most successful horses was Dubai Millennium, winner of last year's Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race.
But the 5-year-old horse died in April after an intestinal illness. He had retired last year after breaking a leg.
Sheik Mohammed turned sentimental when recalling the horse that won nine of 10 career races and $4.1 million.
"Dubai Millennium was a very special horse for me," he said. "He's the best horse I've ever owned or seen. You could see his big heart through his eyes. The wind blew between his ears when he ran."
Sheik Mohammed first tried to win the Kentucky Derby in 1999 with Worldly Manner, who finished seventh. Last year, Godolphin had two entries, but China Visit was sixth and Curule was seventh.
The sheik could have been in England on Saturday, where he has four horses running, including the favorite in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.
But he wanted to be at the Derby "because it's one of the best races in the world."
"It's a challenge and I love challenges," he said. "It's a good challenge because American owners and trainers are very hard to beat."