THE MODEST PRINCE; Quiet and self-effacing, Prince Khalid Abdullah has built up a formidable racing and breeding operation that yet again tasted top-level success with Workforce's Derby victory. In an exclusive interview he spoke to Brough Scott at his Paris home: 'I do enjoy it, but I don't like showing myself and talking to the press. I don't think it suits me'.
PRINCE Khalid Abdullah was amused by the memories. "You need to be lucky," he says, as if this could explain the 30 years of glittering success crowned by Workforce's Derby last Saturday. "This year, for example, I have won two Classics with Special Duty while being second." The Prince's smile is a slow one - but he likes it that way.
Courtesy should never be confused with softness, nor shyness with lack of will. For two hours in Paris on Thursday morning, Prince Khalid talked of a racing passion first lit when friends took him to Longchamp back in 1956. Never once did the courtesy or the self-effacing shyness slip, yet neither did the impression alter that the unique achievements of the prince's international Juddmonte empire still depend on having this remarkable owner-breeder at the heart of it all.
"But I know nothing about racing," he says to the suggestion that he might have an input into a horse's programme. "How can I tell a trainer what to do? I have very good people and good managers. I talk to them all the time. It is not a business but it is my only hobby and so we have to run it like a business - not to make money, but to make sure we control it."
As he talks, the words - quiet and carefully chosen - are spoken in still-quite accented English and you think how far he is from, and yet how close he remains in his enthusiasm to, the thousands who also have racing as their thing.
He is sitting in the silk-lined ante-room at the top of the stairs in his town house on the edge of the elegant Parc Monceau, not half a mile from the Bois de Boulogne and Longchamp, ready to go to lunch with important visitors from his native Saudi Arabia. Yet he will return in time to watch a once-raced Oasis Dream colt called Uphold wing home at 3-1 in the second division of the maiden race at Nottingham. Punters in betting shops who blindly back the pink and green will be just as pleased as a prince in Paris - especially those who got the early 7-1.
Uphold's was a 20th British win of a season with a current total of pounds 1.5m prize-money already and which could yet eclipse all that has gone before. It is a far cry from those first thoroughbred sightings of 1956. "I was only over here," remembers Prince Khalid, "because my oldest son needed treatment. But I had two Saudi friends and they used to go to the races every day. So instead of learning the French language, I started going with them. "At that time, of course," he adds with a slight dip of the head which acknowledges that financial matters are rather better now, "I had not any money.
But I promised myself that one day I would have a horse running in my colours at Longchamp." THAT initial dream was put on hold, but after completing his history studies in America and Riyadh, the prince - he is cousin and brother-in-law of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - started out in a business which was eventually to grow into the massive Mawared conglomerate. He now takes a back seat and leave the running to his sons, but back in 1977 business was looking up and had taken him to London.
"I began to watch the races in England," he says with relish, "and I felt that the promise should be realised." At this stage the late Humphrey Cottrill and trainer Jeremy Tree should each take a posthumous bow. For it was into the bloodstock advisor's hands, and via him to Tree's stable, that Abdullah delivered himself with a vague wish that he wanted to buy some horses. Faced with this quiet, apparently naive but evidently very wealthy Saudi prince there are many in the racing game who would have greedily taken the short-term view and thus soured off one of the greatest individual benefactors in racing history. They didn't. The prince wanted to buy four horses. They said it was too many.
"Jeremy said we could do it with two horses," recalls Prince Khalid, "but I said that if we had at least four we might have some luck. None of them did win that first year, but Aliya won a Group race later, and of the ones we bought in 1978, Abeer won the Queen Mary Stakes. She was not expensive - 25,000gns I think."
Others in that second year were quite a bit more costly, but while the 264,000gns shelled out for Sandhawk was almost entirely wasted, the $225,000 that Cottrill and Tree paid at Keeneland for a bay colt by In Reaility was very much not so. Named Known Fact, the colt won the 1979 Middle Park and was also victor, albeit on Nureyev's disqualification, of the 1980 2,000 Guineas. That success was the first leg of what would eventually become a clean sweep of the Classics in Britain and France for those green silks with the pink sash and cap. The very first time this livery had hit the winner's circle had been with a horse called Charming Native at Windsor on May 14, 1979 and it turns out that the sash and cap should have been orange.
"Before I started as a owner," says Prince Khalid, eyeing the green and orange-clad room in Paris on Thursday, "Lord Weinstock came to see me in my office and looked around at the curtains and wallpaper and said, 'you have your colours here'. Someone misunderstood the instructions, but after Windsor I thought it would be unlucky to change." After Known Fact the ambition began to take on another dimension. While other big winners, notably Dancing Brave, the greatest of them all, still came from the yearling sales, the idea of forming a breeding operation was taking shape.
"When I was at the sales," says Prince Khalid, "I realised that it would be easier to buy horses and race them, but I got the feeling that this was not enough, that it would be more fun to do what people like the Aga Khan and Lord Howard de Walden did and build up your own families."
So it was that the Juddmonte empire began. Studs were bought in England, Ireland and America; Known Fact became the sire of champion miler Warning; Arc winner Rainbow Quest fathered the first Juddmonte Derby winner Quest For Fame in 1990; and Dancing Brave the second when Commander In Chief stormed clear at Epsom in 1993. The previous year Juddmonte had nine worldwide Group 1s, but the following year proved to be an annus mirabilis, with Zafonic, a product of their American operation, taking the 2,000 Guineas as part of a season that saw top strikes in Britain, France, Ireland and America. Interviewing Prince Khalid for the Sunday Times before the Derby that year was to note the exactness of the detail gathered by Philip Mitchell, then, as now, general manager of the prince's five European studs - three in England and two in Ireland.
As this year with Bullet Train and Workforce, in 1993 Juddmonte were two-handed in the Derby with Commander In Chief being less fancied than Tenby, who started favourite. And, as this year, Abdullah was not into overelaboration. "I rely on very good professionals," he had said in his London study with a huge canvas of some 16th century Italian battle hanging above his desk. "I just hope we can get some of it right."
The current total of 156 Group 1 victories, 125 of them with home-breds, is testimony to that hope fulfilled, as is the success of Dansili and Oasis Dream as outstanding young stallions in Europe, and Belmont winner Empire Maker in America. But 17 years on from that first conversation, and after another 18 Group race wins in another golden year of 2003, there were a few more clues as to just how much the man who is listed on racecards as plain Khalid Abdullah cares about his operation .
The first evidence is from those who work for him: from Dr John Chandler and Garret O'Rourke in America, to Rory Mahon in Ireland, and Mitchell and racing manager Teddy Grimthorpe in England. Talk to any of them and they will tell you not of a noisy hands-on employer, but of a quiet man who, in the words of Grimthorpe, "likes things to be done properly". On Thursday, Prince Khalid was happy to explain .
"It is still my only hobby," he says with a degree of self-mocking sadness, "but while I have very good people working for me, I like to be involved. "We have budgets on everything because you cannot say to managers that you should just go and spend, that's not good for anyone. When I first said to Lord Weinstock that I was going to have horses I did not expect to make money, and we are not really doing that, but it is all within reason. At one stage I felt the operation was getting too big. It is important for me to be able to deal with one manager."
To that end, Grimthorpe (who took over from Grant Pritchard-Gordon in 1998) is briefed by the trainers of the 250 horses spread almost evenly between England and France and with some 40 in America, and reports every evening to his patron wherever he may be in the world. By the time he does so, the miracle of satellites means he will be talking about a race that the prince has already watched. The search, of course, is for excellence, not mere indulgence, and the key to Abdullah's interest is in his fascination as to how his equine families are working out.
"I have my stud book with me all the time," he says. "With breeding, I think the dam is the key more than the stallion. With a bad dam, nothing is going to work out. We have to sell to keep the standard. With unraced mares, [such as Workforce's dam Soviet Moon] it is a judgement. I cannot take any credit for Workforce but at least we did not sell the dam."
What he can take credit for is the way he can get others to pursue excellence on his behalf. Not just on mating lists - on which he gives approval; or on allocation of horses to trainers - which is entirely his own responsibility; but in quality control, instantly obtained and present from the very beginning of a horse's life. Within minutes of an enquiry to Mitchell about Workforce's development, a series of documents come across by email detailing everything from the moment of birth - 9.44pm at the Side Hill Stud on March 14, 2007, to his emergence "as a genuine Derby contender".
If you must know, the only documented query on Workforce's first night was that the newborn foal did not suck on his mother's milk until 3.20am, but by the time he got to Ireland in November that year his birth weight of 62kg had grown to a hefty 356kg and Mitchell's otherwise complimentary comments contain the proviso "could get too big".
AYEAR later, when Workforce had already grown to 16 hands and 525kg, that caveat must still have seemed a danger and it says much for the team's judgement and facilities that he could be kept back to take his time and complete his early exercise with Joe Mahon at Ferrans Stud in Ireland. In fact Workforce did not arrive at Sir Michael Stoute's until June 6, 2009 and the feat that he achieved in being able to run and win brilliantly at Goodwood on September 23 that year says as much for his early preparation as it does for his own talent and that of his trainer. But that is only one story of a pupil in the scholarship stream.
This week Abdullah has an 18-strong roster of star home-breds coming up for highly prized, highly public examinations. Starting with Deluxe, half-sister to Dansili and Banks Hill, taking on the Aga Khan stars Sarafina and Rosanara in this afternoon's Prix de Diane, before Ascot week beckons with major challenges at every turn.
Whatever happens to the brilliant but exasperating Zacinto in the Queen Anne on Tuesday, more will be expected of Twice Over and Byword, joint-favourites for the Prince of Wales's on Wednesday, from Showcasing, high in the lists for the Golden Jubilee at the end of the week and even more from Manifest, hot favourite for the Gold Cup - which is just about the only major race that an Abdullah horse has never won. This is about as exciting as Flat racing gets, and your first impression of the impassive features on the rather slight, but immaculately dressed, figure at the centre of the Juddmonte team might make you think he was not experiencing it.
"But I do enjoy it," insists Abdullah as we closed, "I like being in England, like visiting my horses and going to the races. But I don't like showing myself and talking to the press. I don't think it suits me really." Courteous as ever he takes me to the door and an aide hands me an umbrella for the soft drizzle outside. The nearby Parc Monceau is exactly a kilometre in circumfrence and on Thursday was peopled by sweaty runners on their lunch-hour jog.
The place is famous as the site, on October 22, 1797, of the first parachute jump when a man called Andre-Jacques Garnerin floated unsteadily to earth after cutting himself free from a hotair balloon at 3,000 feet. British and French, and indeed all racing fans, might be excused for thinking that 54 years ago something equally wondrous dropped down from above.
Prince Khalid Abdullah talks to jockey Ryan Moore and Sir Michael Stoute, the team that delivered Derby success for the familiar colours with Workforce last week Prince Khalid Abdullah's first Classic winner Known Fact is taken into the winner's enclosure at Newmarket by Willie Carson in 1980 (left); his most recent Classic victor Workforce is greeted in the Epsom winner's enclosure (above); and the greatest of them all, Dancing Brave, strides out (below)