The landscape of UK racing changed forever back in 1992 with the inception of Godolphin and the investment of the Dubai-based Maktoum family, spearheaded by Sheikh Mohammed.
Last week signalled the intent of a new Middle Eastern force for good as Glorious Goodwood was taken over by the horse-racing power that is Qatar.
It is hard to imagine a more English scene than Goodwood. A garden-party atmosphere with, as Steve Dennis of the Racing Post eloquently wrote, “linen suits, ducal flags flapping gently in the summer breeze, the soft green folds of the South Downs spreading soothingly as far as vision allows, and a field of lean and lithe thoroughbreds hurrying down the hill towards home, silks and stirrups all agleam in the sun”.
But now Goodwood is not so much quintessentially English as quintessentially Qatari! For last week’s renewal marked the inauguration of a massive ten-year sponsorship deal with Qatar Racing.
The presence of the Qatari brand was widespread. The Qatari media-machine was ubiquitous. But in no way did the new sponsors impinge or intimidate. In no way were the essence and tradition of Goodwood compromised.
Instead there seemed a concerted effort to re-create a mini-version of Royal Ascot on the West Sussex Downs. The classy, pocket-sized racecards gave that away, even if the often cool and blustery weather didn’t always play ball.
The only serious complaints appeared to come from some members of the home-based Press, who were spitting feathers that their plush former base on the course had been commandeered by the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club for hospitality purposes, and they had been re-located to a makeshift media room that didn’t even afford views of the track!
Even the most cynical of hacks can recognise, however, that if the key element of Qatar’s backing -- an extra £2 million of prize money, with a promise to increase this year-on-year -- succeeds in raising the quality of the meeting, racing has backed another Middle Eastern winner.
And let’s be in no doubt about the commitment of the Al Thani family, who are passionate about the sport. Qatar Racing, which already sponsors the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, is a subsidiary of QIPCO, whose support has enriched the British Champions Series, Ascot’s Champions Day and Newmarket’s Guineas Festival beyond measure. A sister operation, Al Shaqab Racing, has transformed Newbury’s Lockinge day into an unmissable spring highlight.
If all this sounds gushingly patronising, I make no apology. Racing in this country cannot maintain its unrivalled excellence without significant financial investment. Yes, the Al Thanis are businessmen, like the Maktoums before them. But they need the sport as much as it needs them. Glorious Goodwood 2015 provided evidence that the partnership can only be fruitful. Between them, the Al Thanis even saddled six of the week’s 35 winners!
Enough of the politics. What of the horses? Of course, if the Qatari link is to work, it must succeed in its aim of attracting the best horses in order to upgrade its flagship races.
Goodwood has made no secret of its hopes to stage at least one Group One contest on each of the five days of the meeting. So the disappointment must have been palpable when one of only two it currently has, the Sussex Stakes, was robbed of the presence of dual Guineas and Royal Ascot hero, GLENEAGLES, who was withdrawn after heavy rain over the previous weekend.
Most racegoers were of the firm view that the Ballydoyle boys had shirked a duel with the French superstar, SOLOW. The decision appeared to be taken prematurely -- even before a stable representative had walked the track which, by the time of the race, had dried out to Good. It also made a mockery of the determination of connections to stress the toughness of Gleneagles and to compare him to one of their stars of yesteryear, GIANT’S CAUSEWAY.
Gleneagles’s absence compounded the disappointment already being felt by racegoers after the late withdrawal of Derby hero GOLDEN HORN from the King George at Ascot. But the two cases cannot be filed in the same cabinet. Anyone who had been at the Berkshire track the day before their showpiece event, and received a thorough drenching from relentless rain, would have understood the decision of the Epsom winner’s owner, Sir Anthony Oppenheimer, and trainer, John Gosden. The deluge rendered parts of the ground desperately testing.
Golden Horn might have coped, but also might have left his career behind -- just as Grundy and Bustino did in their famously hyped King George clash of 40 years ago. On the other hand, Gleneagles would have undoubtedly coped with the conditions at Goodwood and, in my view, he would have beaten Solow who, in wearing down the admirable AROD, was workmanlike at best.
If the Sussex Stakes didn’t quite set the heart racing, at least the performance of LEGATISSIMO did in the meeting’s second Group One, the Nassau Stakes. I remember writing at the time of her 1,000 Guineas success that David Wachman’s filly (and indeed the runner-up LUCIDA) was almost certainly brilliant. Narrow defeats at Epsom and The Curragh failed to dampen the enthusiasm, so it was very satisfying to see her unleash the turn of foot of the week to thrash a useful field. Quite what has gone wrong with Jim Bolger’s Lucida, who is yet to win this season, I’m not too sure.
Goodwood was also a momentous week for sad reasons as we waved poignant, if very different, farewells to a couple of racing icons in commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan and champion jockey Richard Hughes.
The death of O’Sullevan triggered wonderful memories of commentaries that will never fade from the sport’s televisual treasure trove. “The mare’s beginning to get up!” and “Dessie’s done it!” will live with me forever as soundtracks to the two greatest days I have ever spent on a racecourse.
The retirement of Hughes puts to bed an attribute so sorely lacking in all corners of this stereotypical society we have forged for ourselves -- namely uniqueness, individuality and sheer bravura. Curiously, among the welter of tributes, it was John McCririck who hit the nail on the head. Hughes was one of the few, and maybe the only, jockey who could be so readily recognisable in the saddle, McCririck argued. He possessed a style and demeanour that was all his own, not to mention a tactical brain that was always ticking over.
The public payments of respect that Goodwood organised for O’Sullevan and Hughes merely added to the feelgood factor which enveloped the Downs last week. One that was capped by confirmation, if it were needed, that the renaissance of Frankie Dettori is now as sky high as his celebrated flying dismounts. Frankie ended the week as the meeting’s top jockey with six winners, three seconds and a third. Fittingly, most of his winners were for Al Shaqab Racing. They know their stuff, you know, these Qataris!
21 HORSES TO FOLLOW FROM THE QATAR GOODWOOD FESTIVAL
ANABEL (2yo filly, Mark Johnston)
BELVOIR BAY (2yo filly, Richard Hannon)
CONVEY (3yo colt, Sir Michael Stoute)
HIDDEN GOLD (4yo filly, Saeed Bin Suroor)
IBN MALIK (2yo colt, Charlie Hills)
KACHY (2yo colt, Tom Dascombe)
KEBLE (3yo colt, John Gosden)
LUSTROUS (4yo filly, Richard Hannon)
MONTSARRAT (2yo colt, Mark Johnston)
MOVE IN TIME (7yo gelding, David O’Meara)
PURE DIAMOND (2yo filly, Saeed Bin Suroor)
RHYTHMICAL (3yo filly, Mark Johnston)
RIDGE RANGER (4yo filly, Eric Alston)
SCARLET DRAGON (2yo colt, Eve Johnson Houghton)
SCOONER (3yo colt, Roger Charlton)
SCOTTISH (3yo gelding, Andrew Balding)
SHALAA (2yo colt, John Gosden)
TASHAAR (3yo colt, Richard Hannon)
TASLEET (2yo colt, William Haggas)
TOOFI (4yo gelding, Roger Varian)
TOP TUG (4yo, Sir Michael Stoute)