Dubai sheikh still chasing elusive Kentucky Derby victory

Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

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 and the NBC Sports app.

Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

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BENSALEM, Pa. – Taiba won the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby by three lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Ridden by Mike Smith, Taiba ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67 and paid $4.80, $3 and $2.60.

It was Baffert’s fourth win in the Grade 1 event at Parx Racing. He also won in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Smith won the race for the third time, all aboard Baffert horses.

Zandon returned $3.80 and $2.60. Cyberknife was another 3 3/4 lengths back in third and paid $3 to show.

Taiba was coming off a second-place finish in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in July. The colt was 12th in the Kentucky Derby under Tim Yakteen, who took over training him while Baffert was serving a 90-day suspension.

“He had a little bit of a rough trip in the Haskell, but we had some time to get him ready for this one,” Baffert said from his base in California. “He proved today he is a good horse. He is getting better and better.”

Baffert Taiba will be pointed toward the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The colt has three wins in five starts this year.

Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has modified paths to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, awarding points to the top five finishers in qualifying races and increasing significance for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and late prep season events.

Most Derby prep races during the qualifying series for 3-year-olds will award points on a 10-4-3-2-1 sliding scale after using a 10-4-2-1 system since 2013. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, run during the season-ending championships on Nov. 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, will increase points from 20-8-4-2 to 30-12-9-6-3 to differentiate the Grade I event from others during prep season.

Select prep races for the 20-horse Derby field have elevated points from a 10-4-2-1 scale to 20-8-6-4-2 to increase their importance and motivate hopefuls to begin their 3-year-old campaigns earlier in the season, track officials stated in a release.

“We believe these modifications adhere to and amplify our goal of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1\ miles on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs vice president/general manager Mike Ziegler said.

The 149th Kentucky Derby and Oaks for fillies will be held on May 5-6, 2023. Derby qualifying season begins with Saturday’s $300,000, Grade III Iroquois for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

The point changes apply to Oaks qualifiers.

Elevated Derby preps include the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in Louisiana; Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; Withers at Aqueduct in New York; Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida; Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in California; Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky.