In just three years, the Al Thani family of Qatar have gone from unknowns to major players on the global racing stage
The 2010 breeze-up sales were not in themselves epoch-making events. The season was too saturated to be described as a categorical success and was zenithed by a 400,000gns top lot, Mayameen, who failed to win in four starts in a career that closed with a tenth of 11 at Dundalk.
And yet… from little acorns can grow something quite spectacular. A scattering of purchases at these sales by the bloodstock agent and stud owner David Redvers were explained at the time as being for a small syndicate of investors searching for good-value stallion opportunities.
Of course they were. The names of some of these purchases might offer a clue, with the glorious benefit of hindsight, as to what was about to unfold: Gold Pearl, Pearl Storm, Pearl Blue, Cadeaux Pearl. Anyone?
Yes, although it was carefully unheralded and known to very few, a new and resourceful beast had entered the bloodstock jungle.
Incredibly, it was only at Deauville in August that the true might of Redvers’s new client began to emerge.
Even as he stood in the parade ring before the Prix Jacques le Marois – won, portentously, by Makfi – Sheikh Fahad bin Abdullah Al Thani cut a relatively low-key figure. Only his abundance of youth and sartorial style would have caught anyone’s attention.
The night before, Redvers had no doubt felt a little confused as various agents came up to him in the Drakkar bar in Deauville’s town centre and congratulated him on his link with Sheikh Fahad, and quizzed him on the spurious rumours that were swirling around the Normandy seaside delight. How sincere they were amidst the heady atmosphere of free-flowing Heineken, cocktails and cigar smoke is a moot point. But the sense of something big unfolding was tangible.
It became even more so when, barely a month later, rumours percolated that Classic winner Makfi was heading outside France for a stud career. And it wasn’t to Coolmore or Kildangan in Ireland, or Dalham Hall in Newmarket. His destination was Gloucestershire and Redvers’ Tweenhills Stud.
Well, now. This was a very different proposition to buying allegedly untapped stallion prospects at the breeze-ups.
Makfi is the founding symbol of the growth of Qatari involvement in European racing and breeding. While Sheikh Fahad was widely reported as the buyer, the son of Dubawi was, in fact, purchased by an investment company involving other family members, Sheikh Hamad and Sheikh Suhaim.
But before we consider who all the Qatari owners are – and there are plenty of them – let’s just remind ourselves of where they come from. It’s important.
The agreement was very much to start modestly and let the project grow with exponential enjoyment and success
Qatar, which has been ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-19th century, has been named the world’s richest country by Forbes magazine, the influential business publication, for the last three years.
It has achieved that status thanks to its reserves of oil and natural gas, possessing more than 15% of the world’s proven gas reserves. As well as winning, controversially, the bid for the 2022 football World Cup, Qatar investment has seen it become the biggest shareholders in Barclays Bank and Sainsbury’s, buy Harrods for a reported £1.5 billion in 2010 and develop Europe’s tallest building, the 310-metre Shard, by London Bridge.
So you can understand that when the news broke that Makfi had been purchased by members of the Qatar ruling family, people got just a little bit excited.
The purchase of Makfi occurred only eight months after Redvers had met Sheikh Fahad for the first time. The speculation has always been that Sheikh Fahad contacted an elite, high-brow concierge service which helps its members find tables at the best restaurants, or the right tailor, or puts them in touch with various professionals who might help them business-wise.
In this case, Sheikh Fahad was reportedly looking for contact with someone who could help him dip his toe into the British racing scene.
The search led to Redvers, who had already built up a reputation for picking up Group horses at small prices, such as Oaks runner-up Rising Cross, who he purchased in partnership as a foal for 10,500gns.
The two men decided that they could indeed work with each other – the purchase of a Maserati for Sheikh Fahad to travel to the races was enviously noted – and the agreement was very much to start modestly and let the project grow with exponential enjoyment and success. It hardly needs stating they achieved their easy-going aim.
On the racecourse, the Pearl Bloodstock colours have been carried by the likes of 2011 Cheveley Park Stakes winner Lightening Pearl and Melbourne and Caulfield Cups and Hong Kong Vase winner Dunaden. The former was bought by Redvers for €125,000 at Goffs, while Dunaden was a private purchase. Significantly, both were bought in the first year of Sheikh Fahad’s involvement and undoubtedly acted as the springboard to further investment.
On the whole, though, Sheikh Fahad cannot really be described as a lavish spender. A scan of the 52 Pearl Bloodstock horses listed in training this year reveals an approach of prudence, not flamboyance. All bar a handful of the juveniles are trained by Olly Stevens at Peter Winkworth’s former base in Chiddingfold, Surrey.
The most expensive yearling purchases in the yard are recent Doncaster winner Lightning Thunder, an 115,000gns Dutch Art filly bought by Redvers at this year’s Tattersalls breeze-ups.
Elsewhere, Pearl Bloodstock has the $475,000 Pearl Spectre, purchased as a foal at Keeneland as part of the Edward Evans dispersal. Mikel Delzangles, meanwhile, has a €130,000 Nicobar juvenile in France.
These are hardly headline-grabbing figures, but they tally with the stated Pearl Bloodstock aim of striving for success with (relatively) modestly-bought horses. Indeed, Stevens also trains 15 juveniles purchased for £30,000 or less.
Pearl Bloodstock has, mind you, struck gold with private purchases such as the aforementioned Dunaden, running in French handicaps at the time they secured him. And there have also been much-enjoyed selling coups, such as Royal Ascot winner Frederick Engels to Hong Kong.
This year, Sheikh Fahad has also bought Longholes Stud in Newmarket as a base for his expanding thoroughbred interests, not least as a walk-in option for his mares visiting Newmarket stallions.
While Makfi and another stallion investment, Harbour Watch, will stay as they are at Tweenhills, the stud has been touted as a possible base for Dunaden if he takes up stallion duties.
All in all, it’s a pretty significant footprint for a 24-year-old to make within just three years, especially considering Sheikh Fahad had no serious involvement in racing prior to becoming transfixed watching Channel 4 Racing during his business studies in London.
Big investment, big aims
Whereas Pearl Bloodstock can be viewed as Sheikh Fahad’s personal set-up, the really serious investment comes via Qatar Racing and Qatar Bloodstock.
The latter was also formed in 2010, sparked by the early success of Pearl Bloodstock, with its initial purchase/investment being Makfi.
Qatar Racing came a year later and is viewed much more as a commercial enterprise which, according to its website, aims “to identify talent and maximise a return in the process”.
One of the most telling accounts of the thinking behind the two Qatar thoroughbred set-ups came in an interview in The Times with older brother Sheikh Hamad, the 31-year-old Chief Executive of QIPCO, of which both Fahad and Suhaim are directors.
In many ways, QIPCO, the holding company for Qatar Racing and Qatar Bloodstock, is an unlikely investor in thoroughbreds. It built the Qatar capital Doha’s landmark Tornado Tower, owns a large stake in Qatar Airways and owns Midmac, described as Qatar’s biggest construction and contracting company – and thus well-placed to prosper in the build-up to the 2022 World Cup.
Sheikh Hamad told The Times, as part of an interview promoting the inaugural Champions’ Day, of how QIPCO’s new portfolio evolved.
“[Racing] used to be Sheikh Fahad’s hobby before he graduated,” Hamad said. “One day, we were in Qatar and he was concentrating on the TV and he said, ‘I have a runner’. I said, ‘Since when? And by the way, which colours are yours?’
“From my point of view it started when he suggested one day — he was just 20 years old — for me to buy a very good stallion. It was quite expensive. But I was very convinced by him. Now he only comes to [me] when he needs me to open the tap.”
Good grief. That’s some prospect. Not least because in the same interview Hamad added: “If I have more than 100 stallions in ten years, then I will be happy. This is the big challenge for Sheikh Fahad, but he is up to it.
“The best horses become the best stallions and our goal is to have as many stallions as possible. We will maintain 80% of our horses in this country [the UK]. It is the home of horseracing, it has the tradition, the manners, the right people. That is what we are doing with the Champions’ Series. The game deserves to be supported.”
Encouraging words for anyone involved in racing who has wondered what might happen when the involvement of the Maktoums and Khalid Abdullah recedes.
This year the Qatar Racing colours have been carried to a debut Classic success via private purchase Just The Judge in the Irish 1,000 Guineas. There were also Royal Ascot successes with Extortionist, who cost just 30,000gns, and Kiyoshi, an 80,000gns buy.
Given the achievements of its runners at those sorts of prices, the 2,500,000gns capture of Hydrogen looks even more astounding. But clearly they thought the unraced colt was worth the investment.
Overall, Qatar Racing has just over 130 horses in training, nearly 80 of them juveniles. Another example that Hydrogen was an exception, not a trend, comes with the fact that there are no other seven-figure buys. By some way the next two most expensive public purchases are the Sea The Stars pair Royal Battalion (575,000gns) and Sarpech (430,000gns).
The spread of stables is much greater than Pearl, with nearly 30 trainers of the two-year-olds alone. It is incredibly good news for British racing. But France has reasons to be cheerful also.
The QIPCO/Qatar Racing boys are cousins of the new Emir Of Qatar, Sheikh Tamin Al Thani, who succeeded his father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani earlier this year.
This is the branch of the family that runs Qatar Investment Authority, the owner of Harrods et al. And their involvement in racing is in no way to be sniffed at, either.
While the former Emir Sheikh Hamad has had no manifest involvement with racing in Europe, his brothers have. One of them is Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalifa Al Thani, the father of Hamad, Suhaim and Fahad. He owns last year’s 2,000 Guineas runner-up French Fifteen, trained by Nicolas Clement and last seen when ninth in the Dubai Duty Free on World Cup day at Meydan.
French Fifteen continues the theme of buying promising horses privately: his original owner was Raymond Tooth, while the son of Turtle Bowl was bought for just €30,000 as a yearling at Arqana.
Abdullah, a former Prime Minister in Qatar, set up the major Arabian and thoroughbred operation Umm Qarn Racing in the early 1990s.
Its investment in Arabian racing has been huge and Umm Qarn is increasingly turning its attention to thoroughbreds, both to race in Qatar and France. Nearly 40 horses are split between Freddy Head, Nicolas Clement and Alban De Mieulle, who campaigns recent Prix Foy runner-up Very Nice Name and trained him to win five races in Qatar over the winter.
Another of the senior Al Thani brothers to have a major involvement in European racing is Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Thani. His colt Hermival was third to Camelot and French Fifteen in last year’s Guineas. The son of Dubawi was yet another private purchase, having been bought originally for Gerard Augustin-Normand for €75,000.
Sheikh Mohammed also bought Flotilla prior to her victory in last season’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies’ Turf, and has horses in training not just in France but with Sir Michael Stoute, Roger Varian and Richard Hannon.
The French connection
Last but by no means least from this branch of the Al Thani family comes Sheikh Joaan, owner of Treve, one of the favourites for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. He is a son of the former Emir, Sheikh Hamad, and brother of the current one, Sheikh Tamim. Put another way, he is the cousin of those who own Makfi, and nephew of the respective owners of French Fifteen and Hermival, Sheikhs Abdullah and Mohammed.
Sheikh Joaan does not mess about, as the decision to retain Frankie Dettori to ride his horses testifies. As well as Treve, his silver and maroon colours have been carried by Toronado and Olympic Glory, likewise French 2,000 Guineas winner Style Vendome and globe-trotting Planteur, plus Group-winning juvenile filly Sandiva. All were private purchases.
But Sheikh Joaan is also prepared to have a go at the sales, where his purchases, made by Nicolas de Watrigant of Mandore International, include an Arqana Sales-topping €1.2m unnamed two-year-old son of Sea The Stars, the recent Deauville Listed-winning juvenile Shamson for 420,000gns, and Orayda, a 400,000gns daughter of New Approach who, like Shamson, is trained by Richard Hannon.
This year’s yearling purchases – so far – appear to include a €650,000 son of Monsun and €210,000 daughter of Makfi. He also made an eye-catching debut at this year’s Doncaster Premier Sales by purchasing a Fast Company colt for 210,000gns.
Big things are also expected of him as a breeder, following the purchase of the 160-acre Haras de Bouquetot in Normandy.
Certainly the Francophile – he was educated at the Speciale Militaire de Saint Cyr – has made some eye-popping broodmare purchases: Zagora for $2.5m, Eden’s Moon for $1.53m – both booked to Frankel in his first season – Changing Skies for $4.2m and Twyla Tharp for 1,700,000gns.
The racing and bloodstock business has a scrapheap of people who waded into the business only to see their fortunes crumble. You get the very strong feeling that this will not be the case for the ruling family of Qatar. Good luck to them.
Al Thani interests in America, Japan and Australia
The Qatar Racing influence is also taking on a global theme. Already it has a handful of yearlings based in Japan, following a successful trip to the national sales in Hokkaido in July.
David Redvers signed for five yearlings in total, headed by a son of King Kamehameha out of the Sunday Silence mare Pink Papillon, for Y90,000,000 (£598,197). All are set to race from the stable of Mitsumasa Nakauchida.
There are also a number of horses in America. Strong Suit, winner of three Group 2s in Britain, is trained by Simon Callaghan, while Animal Kingdom’s handler, Graham Motion, has taken charge of a number of juveniles.
The three-year-old filly Driving Louise gave Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Bloodstock operation its first strike in Australia on August 15, when the Robert Smerdon-trained runner landed a two-mile contest at Ballarat. Other runners are based in Victoria with Peter Moody, associated with now-retired superstar Black Caviar.
Sheikh Fahad has already tasted big-race success down under, courtesy of Dunaden, victorious in the 2011 Melbourne Cup and 2012 Caulfield Cup.
Closer to home, Chopin, who finished seventh behind Ruler Of The World in the Derby, is stationed in Germany with Andreas Wöhler, having been purchased privately from his previous owner after an eight-length success in a Group 3 at Krefeld.