Dubai sheikh still chasing elusive Kentucky Derby victory

Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC
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Winning major horse races around the world is the lifeblood of Godolphin, and there’s none bigger than the Kentucky Derby.

Getting his hands on the gold winner’s trophy on the first Saturday in May has been a decades-long quest for Godolphin founder Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister and a vice president of the hereditarily ruled United Arab Emirates.

“It’s such an elusive place to get to,” said Jimmy Bell, who runs Godolphin’s U.S. operations.

Horses owned by the Maktoum family have won many of the world’s other famous races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Epsom Derby, Melbourne Cup, Prix de l’arc de Triomphe, and the Dubai World Cup, a $12 million race he invented.

Still, the Derby has eluded the 71-year-old sheikh and his brothers, but certainly not for a lack of trying. Godolphin is 0-for-11, having made its first attempt in 1999.

Its next chance comes Saturday at Churchill Downs with undefeated Essential Quality. Bred and owned by the sheikh, the gray colt has already earned over $2.2 million and is the top points qualifier for the 147th Derby. He’s expected to be the early favorite in a likely full field of 20 horses.

“It would be the biggest accomplishment,” said Brad Cox, who would become the first Louisville-born trainer to win the race. “It’s been a real honor to train for such a global empire and to have a horse like this.”

Based in Dubai, Godolphin operates in Australia, Britain, France, Ireland, Japan and has six farms in Kentucky.

The amount of time and money the Maktoum family has invested in each attempt confirms their passion. Their last four Derby runners have been homebreds, which are horses bred and raced by the current owner.

Homebreds have won the Derby 64 times, including 10 of the last 17 years.

“They’re a classy organization that obviously is dealing with some high-end bloodstock, some of the best bloodlines in the world,” Cox said.

Kiaran McLaughlin worked for the Maktoums in the UAE from 1993-2003. He trained three of their Derby runners, including Frosted, Godolphin’s highest-placing finisher who was fourth behind eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.

“They’ve built up a fabulous breeding operation. They have the best sires going to the best mares. A lot of thought is put into each mating,” McLaughlin said by phone from New York. “The approach to do it is about the horse. If the horse got real good in Dubai or somewhere else, they would try to bring them to win the Derby.”

Six of the Maktoums’ Derby horses were guided by Godolphin’s head trainer, Saeed bin Suroor. Born in Dubai, he has spent much of his career supervising the stable’s operations at Newmarket, England.

Besides Cox and McLaughlin, the family has tried to win with American trainers before. Doug Watson, McLaughlin’s former assistant, trained another of the sheikh’s Derby entries, as did Ireland-born and U.S.-based Eoin Harty.

McLaughlin retired from training last year to become a jockey agent. But he has a tie to Saturday’s Derby, having gotten Luis Saez the ride aboard Essential Quality.

“Everybody wants to win the Kentucky Derby, but I don’t think anyone deserves it more than Sheik Mohammed because he has put so much into the game and not just money,” McLaughlin said.

Sheikh Mohammed’s passion for horses began as a young man who rode bareback races with his friends on the beach in Dubai. While studying at Cambridge, he attended the races for the first time at Newmarket in 1967. Ten years later, he earned his first victory with a filly named Hatta at Brighton, England.

“Sheikh Mohammed actually rides in endurance races,” McLaughlin said.

Patience may be one of the sheikh’s greatest traits.

“He’s first of all an astute horseman and understands it probably better than we do. He is so philosophical,” Bell said. “If it’s meant to be, it will happen in time. He makes it very easy because he’s so understanding and has such a great outlook on things.”

Sheikh Mohammad isn’t the only royalty involved in this year’s Derby. Cox also trains Mandaloun, a homebred for Juddmonte Farms, which was owned by Saudi Prince Khalid bin Abdullah until his death in January at age 83.

Juddmonte earned its lone victory in a Triple Crown race in 2003, when Empire Maker won the Belmont Stakes. It is 0-for-5 in the Derby, finishing second twice.

Sheikh Mohammed experienced his own loss in March, when his brother, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, died at 75. He was an influential horse owner and breeder in his own right, having founded Shadwell Racing in England, in the 1980s. Horses bred there have won over 50 Group 1 races in Europe.

To win the Derby this year in particular would be especially meaningful to the sheikh, who isn’t expected to attend.

“Make no mistake, the first Saturday in May is a big deal,” Bell said. “We’re just grateful to be on the road with a horse we think could be very competitive and to be a homebred on top of that, we’re pretty tickled.”

Watch the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1 from 12 to 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Full coverage is also available on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

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Sam Upshaw Jr./USA TODAY NETWORK
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”