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'I don't know whether I can call myself one of the big owners yet' Marwan Koukash may think that, but the statistics this season tell a different tale. Steve Dennis hears a remarkable story of progress, from refugee to Redford.

HE LEADS the way through his palatial home, pointing out the cinema room, the pool room, the poker room. He pushes open a door to show the indoor swimming pool and the steam room and walks on, his open-toed sandals flapping on the floor. Considering that Marwan Koukash didn't own a pair of shoes until he was 12, even a pair of sandals represents a step up. Considering that Koukash spent a substantial part of his childhood as a refugee, his house represents a big step up. And when you discover that he paid his first visit to the races only just over three years ago, his progress as an owner is a gigantic leap forward. Koukash's dark grey and beige silks are a familiar sight on British racecourses, especially if you go racing at Chester and Haydock, where Koukash sends his horses most frequently. The efforts of those horses have thrust him into the top echelon of owners, into the top five this season based on winners, and winners are very important to him. Two or three times during the interview he confesses that he is a complete novice at the game, a candid piece of self-deprecation that sits uneasily with his galleries of photographs and cabinets of trophies. But he's right; there are 7lb-claiming teenagers who have been in racing longer than Koukash. "I paid my first visit to the races in 2007, I went with a group of friends to Haydock," says Koukash. "I enjoyed it, and I thought it would be a good idea to buy a horse. "A little later I was introduced to Ian Williams, and I asked him to buy me a horse to run at Haydock. He found me a horse called Tufton. My Classics are the Chester Vase, the Cheshire Oaks, the Chester Cup, the big sprint at Haydock' "So I hired a box at Haydock and invited lots and lots of friends. It wasn't until they asked me why my horse was running in a seller that I realised what sort of race it was - at that stage I didn't know the difference between a seller and a handicap. "Tufton was very keen, and he took up the running and went well clear. I thought this was an easy game, my first horse, my first winner. But in the home straight all the other horses went past him. He finished last." To an outsider, the episode might have had its comedic undertones. Rich man buys racehorse and gathers friends and family around him to bask in his expected success, only to be humbled by the bathetic performance of his hapless, hopeless animal. Some rich men might have packed it in forthwith, gone off to empty their wallets over some other diversion. Koukash bought another horse. "The next horse I bought was a winner, and I began to get hooked on the sport," he says. You can talk of little acorns and mighty oaks. After Fathsta's win in the pounds 75,000 sprint at York yesterday, Koukash, 52, is four short of his 100th winner in Britain and is now a major player. He is something of a fisherman, too; he casts his net wide and proclaims that little fish are sweet. Play amateur psychiatrist all you want, and you might conclude that amassing winners is the rich man's equivalent of amassing wealth. The more winners he owns, the greater the evidence of his success, his business acuity. All fivers are the same, surely, it's the amount that counts. The bigger the pile, the wider the smile. There is something simpler at work here, though. We know - we're supposed to know - that money can't buy happiness. Okay; but it can help you put down a decent-sized deposit on it. And Koukash is happy at the track, with his family around him. "Winning any race, regardless of its class, gives me a lot of pleasure," says Koukash. "Seeing my horse cross the line first, that's why I'm in the sport. "I don't know whether I can call myself one of the big owners yet. Whenever I go racing I like to take my wife Mandy and my children with me. It's a great way to relax, the horses act as a release from my business." Koukash certainly doesn't seem to treat owning racehorses as a business or as an advertisement for his wealth, but as a vehicle for enjoyment. It's not a modern word, and it's not a particularly 21st-century attribute, but at heart Koukash is a sportsman. HE IS also an evangelist for the delights of Chester and, to a slightly lesser extent, Haydock, which is no more than ten minutes' drive from his house. Chester is his blueprint for how other courses should be, how they should treat owners and trainers, how they should attract racegoers. "My preference is to run my horses at Chester and Haydock," he says, a statement almost child-like, almost contrary in its directness. "If there is a similar race at Doncaster, say, I ask my trainers to run at Chester instead. It does cost me a lot of winners, because sometimes they run at Chester when the race isn't quite right for them, the conditions don't suit, and when they could run somewhere else and maybe win. It is not just my horses. When Redford won at Ascot the other week we all went to Chester instead, where we had runners, and watched him on television. "For me, the Chester May festival is far superior to Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, the York Ebor meeting. It is special for me. Hopefully, next year we can plan things so I can have more runners - and hopefully winners - at Chester, and also at Haydock." His choice of trainers - Ian Williams, Richard Fahey, Kevin Ryan, David Nicholls, David Simcock, Jane Chapple-Hyam and David Wachman, with Tom Dascombe joining the clan next year - is at once as esoteric and as much rooted in common sense as the rest of his racing involvement. "You have to be careful who you work with ... my criteria are people who I get on with, people my family can get on with. Every one of my trainers is considered a family friend," he says. "I don't want to get too involved in the way horses are trained, I leave that up to my trainers. My only involvement is the preference to run at Chester and Haydock. "I have a racing manager, Stephen Hillen, but he is not my go-between because I like the connection, I like talking to my trainers. I lead a very busy life, and it's nice to take a 20-minute break and call my trainers to talk about my horses, plan for the next couple of weeks. "I enjoy that side of the business and I like my opinion to be listened to, that's why I work with these people. Other trainers might tell me to get lost." The list of trainers who would amiably tell a multi-millionaire to get lost is a short one, I'd imagine, but the sentiment sits nicely with Koukash's repeated affirmations of his novice status. Even when a rift occurs, it seems, the underlying connection, the underlying affection still holds. The tale of Redford is a case in point. Now comfortably Koukash's most accomplished horse after victories in the Ayr Gold Cup and the Challenge Cup, Redford also saw service this summer as an olive branch. Earlier in the year, Koukash's horses had left David Nicholls' yard amid rumours of a permanent split. Koukash chooses his words carefully, a wreath of Silk Cut smoke circling his head as he pauses. "The horses moved out of Dandy's yard, but it was not my decision to move them out of the yard. I didn't ask for them to be moved," he says. "The strength of my relationship with Dandy can be seen in that a couple of days later we were talking to each other. Our family's friendship continued, it didn't take much to sort out what had happened. And then the opportunity to have horses with him again came with Redford. "It seemed as though he needed a change of scenery, so I moved him from Kevin [Ryan] to Dandy. After his first run for Dandy, at Newmarket, Frankie Dettori got off and said the horse would win the Ayr Gold Cup. "Dandy must have weaved his magic. It was very, very special to win the Ayr Gold Cup - now I'm looking forward to the party. We'll have it in a few weeks' time, all my trainers and their families and my family. We'll celebrate having a successful year." The old gag about the best way to make a small fortune in racing being to start with a large fortune applies to Koukash, but that only goes so far. He has a large fortune now, but he started with nothing. There may well be silver spoons in his house, but they'll have been a prize from Chester or Haydock. Koukash is Palestinian by birth and arrived in England by way of Kuwait, where his family were refugees before building themselves a new life. "I'm comfortable," he says, with the comfortable understatement of the very wealthy, "but everything I have has come to me through hard work. "I wasn't born into a rich family. I have six brothers and five sisters and we were refugees. The first time I had shoes on my feet I was 12 years old. "That part of my life taught me a lot, taught me to appreciate the things I did have, to appreciate the value of hard work. I learned a lot from my father. He worked his way up from a clerk to an accountant to a company director. He supported my education in England. "I came to England as a student at the age of 17, I could hardly speak a word of English when I came here. England was not my choice, by the way, I wanted to go to America, but my father pushed me into coming here. "Liverpool in the late 1970s was a wonderful place to be, the people were very helpful, very genuine, they looked at foreigners as someone away from their home and were more tolerant - I think it is different now." KOUKASH graduated from John Moores university, developed an affection for Liverpool football club that has only recently waned, stayed on to do a PhD in engineering and then taught at the university for five or six years. Then the vice-chancellor recognised the businessman in him and appointed him as director for international business at John Moores. In the mid-1990s he struck out on his own, later joining forces with his family. The family business is EuroMaTech, based in Dubai and involved in staff training, consultancies, property development and construction. Koukash's office is in Liverpool, as is his most prominent project, the five-star boutique Hotel Layla - named after his eldest daughter - that is expected to open early next year following recession-related delays. "It's three Victorian buildings converted into a luxury hotel," he says. "I look upon it as my trophy in life, to build something that big, that spectacular. "It is not wholly commercial, given its name, it's more personal than that. And I hope that my other daughter Lexi doesn't come up to me one day and say 'Daddy, where's my hotel?'" Two-year-old Lexi already has plenty of horses with her name attached, as does Layla, 11, whose interest in the sport may even exceed that of her father. "She thinks all the horses are hers, not mine," says Koukash. The girls have a baby brother or sister on the way, and Koukash jokingly suggests that he's been naming horses after his children for ages, perhaps he'll start naming his children after horses. Redford Koukash, anyone? Mandy laughs, not altogether convincingly. The next step for Koukash (who has the requisite rich man's Bentley and Maserati in his drive but in his garage an LAPD squad car fresh from Hollywood Boulevard, working model, sirens and lights and all; apparently he drove it to Haydock once) is to increase the quality of his string. However, as he points out, he'll still need plenty of handicappers and claimers because that's the kind of races you get at Chester and Haydock. There were reports that his target was 200 horses in training, but smaller is more beautiful at the moment. "I did say that, but knowing now what I know about the sport, it's not easy to have 200 horses," he says. "You can buy that many but they will be mostly rubbish. "I have many horses entered in the sales this year, I'm getting rid of quite a few, and I've been buying a lot of yearlings to be two-year-olds next year, a good mixture of speed and stamina, Hurricane Runs and Dubawis. I'll also be buying at the breeze-ups. "I want to start bringing horses through rather than buying horses in training. Hopefully, they will provide me with the quality that I want to keep. Spending more money on horses does not guarantee success and that type of horse is not easily bought." Koukash won't be buying any jumps horses, though, citing the safety and the attrition rate for his decision to stick to the Flat. "It's devastating to see your horse injured, or even killed," he says. "You see them in the parade ring one minute, the next you see them in the horse ambulance. "I've lost horses on the Flat before, lost my favourite horse Suruor at Ascot last month. I've had a couple of jumpers in the past but I turned my face away every time they approached a jump. No more." Know the man and you know his ambitions. "I'm not chasing Classics, I'm not the Maktoums or the Coolmore people," he says. "If one comes along, great, but my Classics are the Chester Vase, the Cheshire Oaks, the Chester Cup, the big sprint at Haydock. Those are the races I want to win." On the way out we pass more photographs of more winner's enclosures, Mandy and Layla and a beaming Koukash in each one. "Just a few more winners to reach a hundred," he says almost to himself, an element of wonder in his voice, his sandals flapping on the floor.


Marwan Koukash: "Winning any race, regardless of its class, gives me a lot of pleasure. Seeing my horse cross the line first, that's what I'm in the sport for"
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Oct 10, 2010
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