"The Kentucky Derby," Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said, "is a more difficult race to win than I first believed."
He was standing in the paddock at Longchamp on the day before the 2001 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the most prestigious Thoroughbred racing affair in all Europe. There, in less than 24 hours, 2-1 favorite Sakhee would be saddled and bridled and sent out to obliterate the field under the electric blue silks of the Sheikh's Godolphin Racing.
He had not been as fortunate with the topic at hand.
Six months earlier the Sheikh's head trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, had sent Godolphin's 2001 UAE Derby winner, Express Tour, to a disappointing eighth-place effort in the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby. It was the Sheikh's fourth consecutive attempt at the Derby; he would make a fifth try with ninth-place finisher Essence of Dubai, a horse for which he paid $2.3 million, in 2002. Winless, his best result a lackluster sixth from 2000 UAE Derby winner China Visit, he would return to Dubai to adjust his strategy and reorganize his runners and plan his new attack on the trophy he so desperately wanted to win.
But before he left, he made a vow.
"If we don't win this time we'll be back, and we'll keep coming back until we do."
Seven years have passed since a Godolphin runner last entered the Churchill Downs starting gates on the first Saturday in May. Sheikh Mohammed, the man for whom money is no object, has since become the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and the Ruler of Dubai. He has also been the top buyer at yearling sales around the world, his spending sprees at American auction bolstering this country's bloodstock economy in years such as 2006, when he spent $58.6 million over the course of three days at the Keeneland September yearling sale. A book in which the scene at Longchamp was described, Jason Levin's From The Desert To The Derby, has been written about this mission, and although his runners have galloped to 146 Grade 1 victories the world over, his pursuit of victory in the most prestigious race in North America continues.
On Saturday, the 59-year-old Sheikh brings to the Derby what many believe may be his best arsenal to date. But his unique training methods -- those of buying American horses, shipping them to Dubai and returning them to the U.S. after conditioning them in the Middle East all winter -- have yet to prove effective against runners trained only in this country. Will Regal Ransom, the 2009 UAE Derby winner, and Desert Party, son of top sire Street Cry, break the Sheikh's dry spell? In seven days we'll know for sure.
His quest began in 1992, when Sheikh Mohammed, whose ownership roots go back to 1977 and a hard-knocking filly named Hatta, watched the horse he owned in partnership with Allen Paulsen (the highly favored Arazi) come galloping home a disappointing eighth in the Kentucky Derby. After establishing Godolphin Racing in 1994 to bring together the best horses owned by his family, Sheikh Mohammed decided he was going to win the Derby on his own. He began by purchasing horses of the same bloodlines that were bringing him great success in Europe, but those pedigrees did not provide tenacity over dirt or the high-powered speed necessary to bring success in the Derby. So the Sheikh switched over to American runners, snatching up this country's top yearlings and 2-year-olds and transferring them to his state-of-the-art centers in Dubai to train there for the winter. Not only was he going to win the Derby, but he was going to win it his way.
"I think there was some arrogance there, this idea that if you throw enough good horses at the race, you're going to win it," Levin said. "And then he realized, that's simply not the case."
Thrust into the media spotlight with his unproven plan, Sheikh Mohammed made a dramatic appearance on the 1999 Derby scene with his first starter, 2-year-old Worldly Manner, purchased for $5 million. But this year, after five Godolphin starters have straggled home without managing to hit the board and after an ensuing absence of the Godolphin colors, the Sheikh's return to the Derby scene is relatively understated. He's still marching to the beat of his own drummer, a beat that plays in time to that old Sinatra tune "My Way," but the media -- and the racing industry -- have grown used to the timbre of the song.
Nothing would give him more satisfaction than to live out those lyrics on the first Saturday in May.
One week before the running of the 135th Kentucky Derby, Saeed bin Suroor stood behind Barn 41 on the backside of Churchill Downs and professed that the horses in his care -- Desert Party, a $2.1 million 2-year-old purchase, and Regal Ransom, a $675,000 2-year-old purchase -- were the best runners Godolphin has ever pointed toward the Run for the Roses.
"The Kentucky Derby is very tough to win," Suroor said. "You need the horse to have the class, the speed, the trip, everything ... "
His voice trailed off as he watched his charges cool out from their morning training routines. Regal Ransom, keen and on the muscle, had delivered the fastest five furlongs of 30 workers that morning, his move made in 59.2 seconds as dawn broke over the Downs. After the renovation break, Desert Party drilled a businesslike 0:59.60. The horses looked good, but this was not the trainer's A-team.
At the start of the season, Sheikh Mohammed had purchased the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old Eclipse Award champion, Midshipman, a son of Unbridled's Song, in a practical buyout of Bob McNair's Stonerside Stable. He also secured Vineyard Haven, a precocious son of Lido Palace who scored back-to-back Grade 1 wins in New York's Hopeful and Champagne Stakes, for a reported $12 million from co-owner/trainer Bobby Frankel. He placed the runners in Suroor's expert care, but Midshipman fell from the Derby trail with a bruised foreleg in February and Vineyard Haven missed hitting the board in the UAE Derby in March. After months of planning and preparation, Godolphin's headlining players were both off the Derby trail.
"We've never seen anything like the Sheikh's methods and we probably never will again," Levin remarked in a recent interview. "So far they haven't worked and I don't think they will work, unless he comes up with a world-beater. I think it's ironic that he runs two this year that were his C and D colts -- not to knock them, by any means -- but they're certainly not the two he initially expected to bring. It just goes to show you, typical of horse racing, that spending the big money doesn't guarantee anything."
Thankfully, there was Plan B. The UAE Derby, a race created by the Sheikh in 2000 as part of his brainchild, the Dubai World Cup Festival, was dominated less than two months ago by 1-2 finishers Regal Ransom and Desert Party. The duo had hooked up previously in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas and in an allowance race at Nad Al Sheba, with Desert Party -- a son of Street Cry and the winner of the 2008 Sanford Stakes -- coming out ahead in both events. But 43-year-old Suroor, watching his evenly matched runners progress throughout the season, predicted a reversal after the Guineas.
"The last race when he finished second, the horse suddenly changed," Suroor said of Regal Ransom, a son of Distorted Humor who went into the UAE Derby with only a maiden win at Saratoga under his girth. "I said to the people there in the stable, 'Maybe there is a surprise coming from him.'
"Both horses are bred to go the distance," the trainer said. "Both are in good form; they're healthy, happy, and there's no excuse for them if they don't win. And I think this year we have a better group of horses than we brought in the past. We try and keep going; we're not going to stop."
Godolphin's tenacious return to this year's Derby field is noted with admiration by some, ambivalence by others. One thing, however, is certain: Like a runner who will not be turned back in a head-to-head stretch duel, Sheikh Mohammed will provide a thrilling exhibition en route to his longed-for victory or painfully familiar defeat.
Trainer Bob Baffert has been involved in various dealings with the ruler of Dubai over the years. He said Sheikh Mohammed is determined in his campaign for victory across the level playing field of the Derby, where bluebloods and blue collars find an equal opportunity at greatness. And he'll keep coming back for more.
"He wants to win it like anybody else," said Baffert, who will saddle Pioneerof the Nile in search of his fourth Kentucky Derby win. "He has a passion for the sport; he's always had that passion. After watching his horses today, I'd say he has a very good shot at winning. He's going to keep on fighting, and that's all you can do until you get the win."
Suroor believed the ruler of Dubai would make a trip to Louisville to attend this year's Kentucky Derby in person. As for the trainer himself, he appeared poised under the pressure of attempting to break Godolphin's disappointing Derby record, but he also recognized the importance of the race. And, like every other trainer with every other starter in this great American classic, he could imagine what it would be like to hoist that trophy to the skies.
"For Sheikh Mohammed, for myself, for a horse from the Middle East to win this race would be amazing. Godolphin has won 146 Grade 1 races worldwide, but this is the Derby. This is great. This is different," he said.