The Washington Post Sunday
Qatar plays the ponies — in a big way
Success with thoroughbreds is reflective of kingdom’s rise in wealth and stature
Cradling his ipad, Sheik Fahad bin Abdullah al-thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family, casts his gaze on a bay colt.
The horse is coming up for bidding on a sunny October afternoon at Tattersalls auction house during Europe’s biggest yearling sale in Newmarket, England. Thani pushes his TAG Heuer sunglasses back on his head and flips through his ipad for details on the colt’s bloodline.
Not long ago, a 22-year-old sheik in jeans and sneakers would have been the ultimate outsider at “Old Tatt,” a tradition- drenched institution dating from the mid-18th century.
Here, bidders are usually British, and the horses are still priced in guineas, an antique monetary unit that’s now equal to 1 pound 5 pence ($1.64).
Even though he started buying thoroughbreds less than 20 months ago after attending his first race, Thani knows what’s he’s looking for. “The temperament is important,” he says. “It’s mostly the pedigree and how the horse looks.”
As a newcomer to the world of thoroughbred horse racing, Thani was up against some of the biggest names in the sport, including Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-maktoum, the ruler of Dubai; John Magnier, the Irish owner of the biggest breeder of thoroughbred horses in the world, Coolmore Stud; and John Warren, Queen Elizabeth II’S bloodstock and racing adviser.
Given the money spent at Tattersalls and other auctions in 2011, the superrich who dominate the global market for thoroughbreds seem immune to shaky markets and the European debt crisis.
Thani peers at lot 49’s details on his screen: The colt’s a big draw at today’s sale; his father is Invincible Spirit, champion of seven races, sire to more 2-yearold winners than any other stallion in 2010.
Thani is determined not to go wild and bows out of the bidding. Warren snaps up the bay colt for 150,000 guineas.
With a relatively tiny budget and a newcomer’s luck, Thani, nephew of Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-thani, is making waves on the global horse-racing circuit — and not because he’s throwing around cash.
At Tattersalls, he spent 215,000 guineas on three untrained yearlings. That was a fraction of the 6 million guineas shelled out by Maktoum, the owner of the world’s richest stable of thoroughbreds.
Yet in less than two years, the young Qatari has pulled off a feat that Maktoum, 62, has not achieved in two decades of investing in flat racing.
On Thani’s first try, his stallion Dunaden won the prestigious Melbourne Cup in a dramatic photo finish: It took the judges 21⁄ minutes to declare the victor.
“Those 21⁄ minutes felt like three years,” Thani says.
The prize at the world’s richest turf race was worth it: $3.6 million. Not a bad return considering he scooped up Dunaden for $156,300 in 2010. on London. In 2010, the investment arm of Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund bought iconic London department store Harrods from Mohamed al-fayed for an undisclosed sum. In 2007, the Qatari royals shelled out 34.7 million pounds for 100 Park Lane, a 17-bedroom mansion overlooking Hyde Park. Thani says his mother owns it.
Today, more than three decades after he got into horse racing, Maktoum’s operation is massive. Godolphin, the Maktoum family’s private horse-racing stable, which takes its name from Godolphin Arabian, a stallion imported to England 300 years ago, raced 382 horses during the first 11 months of 2011, earning Godolphin $19 million in prize money.
Darley, Maktoum’s global breeding operation, has stallions in six countries. Those horses include Dubawi, who commands 75,000 pounds for a stud visit. Small wins lead to big profits
Thani says he doesn’t need to get big to win. He now has about 50 horses in training after spending more than $9 million in the past 18 months buying up yearlings, 2-year-olds and broodmares for himself and his family.
With his Melbourne Cup win, he was profitable again in 2011; in addition to prize money, he sold three horses to buyers in Hong Kong for $1.57 million each.
While profiting from racing is difficult, breeding can be a gold mine. In May 2010, Thani attended his first ever horse race — the 2000 Guineas in Newmarket, one of Britain’s five so-called classic races.
After watching a horse called Makfi win the race as a 33- to-1 outsider, Thani asked David Redvers, his bloodstock adviser, to see whether it made sense to buy the animal and start a stud business.
In August, Thani and Qipco bought Makfi for $11 million and formed Qatar Bloodstock, which runs alongside his personal racing business, Pearl Bloodstock.
Makfi, an offspring of Maktoum’s Dubawi, is now commanding 25,000 pounds per visit with a broodmare.
In 2011, he “covered,” or tried to impregnate, 140 mares at Redvers’s Tweenhills Farm & Stud west of Oxford, England, before being shipped to New Zealand, where he was scheduled to cover 120 mares. Makfi generated 6 million pounds for Qatar Bloodstock in 2011.
“Within three years, we will have made back the money plus some profit,” Thani says. “But the main thing with stallions is, if their progeny actually perform well enough, you can make 200 to 300 percent of what you’ve paid for it easily a year.” Restrained approach wins
While working toward a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the London campus of European University in 2008, Thani began watching racing on television. He was hooked. Thani says he started researching agents who could help him buy, and several people recommended David Redvers.
In February 2010, Redvers got a message that Thani wanted to talk to him. Redvers had never heard of Thani and wasn’t sure whether it was worth flying from New Zealand to Britain to meet him. He says he asked a friend who had served in the British Special Forces to figure out who Thani was. The next day, the friend sent Redvers a text: “Take the flight.”
Looking back, Thani says he liked Redvers’s restrained approach.
“He popped up to me as kind of a shrewd person who doesn’t buy the top lot in the sale, where it can go crazy money sometimes,” he says. Redvers, 41, says he likes Thani’s approach to investing.
“We’ve taken the view we need to run it almost as a business,” Redvers says. “I say ‘almost,’ because with racehorses, there’s an element of ‘You can never expect to make money.’”
Thani’s Melbourne Cup win capped a rags-to-riches story that began in 2006 with the sale of Dunaden — for 1,500 euros — to a Dutch couple, Jetty van der Hulst and her husband, Hans Diehl, at a yearling sale in Deauville, France.
For the next three years, the future champion lived at the couple’s farm in Nederweert, the Netherlands. Diehl, who had worked as a racecourse official in Dutch trotting competitions, got Dunaden accustomed to starting gates when he was a year and a half old — by letting him walk through doors at their house, Van der Hulst says.
After Dunaden was broken in, Van der Hulst and Diehl sold him for 17,000 euros at a sale in France, to Alban de Mieulle, owner of a Qatari racehorse stable.
When Redvers bought Dunaden last year on Thani’s behalf, the goal was not the Melbourne Cup; it was winning a less important race at l’arc de Triomphe. Dunaden lost — in a photo finish.
Confident of Dunaden’s progress, Thani stumped up more than 60,000 euros to transport him to Melbourne for another, happier photo finish. “We’ve been lucky,” Thani says. And businesslike: “We’ve also bought into the right horses at the right value,” he says.
After all, the young sheik from Qatar is not one to throw around what he calls “crazy money.” Even in the sport of kings. The full version of this Bloomberg Markets story appears in its February issue.