Winner's circle: why Godolphin's Epsom Derby victory matters

After years of trying, Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin stable finally secured victory in one of the world's classic flat races: The Epsom Derby. Here's how it happened and why it matters
By Laura King, Peter Iantorno and Jeremy Lawrence
Fri 15 Jun 2018 12:26 AM

“I love horses, horses are in my blood,” was the immortal quote from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in the famous Epsom Downs Winner’s Enclosure on Saturday, June 2, moments after his colt Masar had won the Derby.

It was perhaps fitting that Epsom’s marketers thought up the catch line “The Supreme Test” for the 2018 running of the Classic, as the 2,400m race has tested Sheikh Mohammed’s patience over the years. The Ruler of Dubai experienced success with his family’s Lammtarra in 1995 and New Approach in 2008 but this was the first time his famous royal blue Godolphin silks had been carried to success over Epsom’s cambers.

“It’s not easy to win the Derby, but we have won it,” His Highness added. “The Derby is the best race in the world. This race is what it’s all about. I’m very happy that my daughter is here today, and that the horse came from Dubai.”

The Derby is the best race in the world. This race is what it’s all about”

When Sheikh Mohammed founded Godolphin back in 1992, the aim was to winter horses in the warmer climate of the Middle East and travel them back to compete with the best in Europe. Masar took such a route, spending the colder months at Godolphin’s Al Marmoom base in the desert. However, his victory in the UK’s most celebrated race looked unlikely when, back in March, he trailed home 41 lengths behind the winner in a Listed race at Meydan; apparently hating the dirt surface.

That race was quickly forgotten, and it was clear that those months under the desert sun helped to mature him. Fitter than his rivals who had struggled through a cold British winter, Masar looked something special when winning the Craven Stakes at Newmarket by nine lengths before finishing a solid third in the 2000 Guineas.

Despite that good account, he was largely unfancied at Epsom. Saxon Warrior, who beat the Godolphin colt comfortably in the Guineas, was the clear favourite to pick up this race for trainer Aidan O’Brien, a Derby specialist, and jockey Ryan Moore. He was agitated in the build-up, however, and could only manage fourth.

The focus on Saxon Warrior meant that Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby, who was saddling Masar, and British-Norwegian jockey William Buick would have felt little pressure during the build-up. Buick executed the perfect ride, keeping his mount well in contention in seventh place and heading for home with 400m left to travel. From then on, Masar was much the best, crossing the line a length and a half ahead of Dee Ex Bee, owned by the watching HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, whose delight for his father was evident for all to see.


Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum with Derby winner Masar

It was a win that clearly meant a lot to the whole Godolphin team, including Appleby, who started out as a travelling groom for the operation some 20 years ago. “It still hasn’t sunk in,” he said after the race. “I’ve seen plenty of Derbies come and go. When I was appointed trainer five years ago it was always the goal to have a Derby winner in the Godolphin blue. The last 100 yards were a long way, but it’s just great.”

Buick now emulates Frankie Dettori and Mickael Barzalona as one of few jockeys to have won the Derby and the Dubai World Cup, and it was also a moment he had been waiting for since learning to ride as a child in Norway. “It’s something really special to win the Derby,” said the 29-year-old. It’s the pinnacle of the sport, the be-all-and-end-all. It means the absolute world to me.”

Next steps

The victory may have meant more to everyone because Masar is Godolphin through and through; the offspring of their sire New Approach, and from a mare, Khawlah, who is the only filly to win the UAE Derby, a feat achieved at Meydan back in 2011. The chestnut, who posed for photos surrounded by around 100 Godolphin staff and grooms, will now face a re-match with Saxon Warrior in the Irish Derby on June 30 or perhaps take on older opposition in the Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Sandown on July 7.

While further success would boost his profile and tempt more breeders to send their mares his way when he retires to stud, what Masar does now matters much less than what he achieved in a little over two and a half minutes at Epsom. He’s a Derby winner, and that’s what matters – to Godolphin and to everyone in racing.


The Godolphin story

We know all about the blue silks, the Emirates sponsorship and the succession of winners, but the stable’s history is long and textured by Peter Iantorno

The name Godolphin is synonymous with horse racing excellence and regarded universally as a world leader. Its roots, though, can be traced back to a little brown horse that was foaled in Yemen all the way back in 1724.

The horse was bought, traded and inherited a number of times, and ended up finding itself under the ownership of Francis the Second Earl of Godolphin, where it became a top-class stud, siring some 80 foals in a prolific career lasting 22 years. The Arabian’s successful offspring went on to sire many thoroughbred champions, and so the illustrious Godolphin Arabian bloodline was established. Such was its pedigree, every one of the first 76 British Classic winners had at least one strain of him in their blood.


Frankie Dettori on Dubai Millennium, September 1999

Some 250 years after the time of the Godolphin Arabian, Dubai’s ruler His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was embarking on a passion for horses that endures to this day. He witnessed his first race in England in 1967, as he and his brother Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum saw Royal Palace win the 2,000 Guineas. Ten years later, Sheikh Mohammed was back in the UK watching his filly Hatta give him his first success as an owner at Brighton, on June 20, 1977. Hatta would go on to take the Group Three Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood the following month.

The following 15 years saw Sheikh Mohammed continue to invest heavily in horse racing abroad, until in 1992, along with his brothers Sheikh Maktoum, Sheikh Hamdan and Sheikh Ahmed, he opened up his own Dubai-based stables, named after the great stallion Godolphin, moving some of his horses from the chilly English winter to the warmer climes of the UAE.


Dettori on Balanchine after winning The Oaks in 1994

The move turned out to be an inspired one, and just two years later Godolphin was celebrating its first Classic success, as Balanchine won the Oaks at Epsom Downs. And the victories just kept on coming: from an unprecedented weekend of success in 1995 that saw Group One wins around the globe with Flagbird (Italy), Heart Lake (Japan) and Vettori (France), to Godolphin’s greatest horse, the magnificent Dubai Millennium, fulfilling its destiny to win the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup, in 2000.

As well as its Dubai headquarters, Godolphin also operates racing stables in the UK and Australia, and has horses training with independent trainers in the UAE, UK, Australia, Ireland, France and the US, making it the largest horse racing operation in the world. The cherry was put on top of the Godolphin cake at the 2018 Derby, as Masar overcame 16-1 odds to earn the stables an elusive first Derby victory.


The history of the Derby

The story behind the one of the world’s most famous horse races by Peter Iantorno

It’s Britain’s richest horse race, the most prestigious of the five Classics and the inspiration for great races the world over, but the iconic Derby Stakes came to be in the late 18th Century as the result of the toss of a coin.

The story of the Derby begins following the first running of the Oaks Stakes in 1779, at a party hosted by the 12th Earl of Derby. During the celebration, the Earl and one of his guests, Sir Charles Bunbury, decided that a new race would be run the following year. The only point of contention? Who to name the race after. A coin was tossed, it landed heads, and one of the most iconic horse races in the world was born.


Blue Peter wins the Epsom Derby in 1939

While Lord Derby won the naming rights, when it came to the race itself the bragging rights very much belonged to his rival Bunbury, as his colt Diomed triumphed at the inaugural Derby Stakes on May 4, 1780. In fact, it took some seven years (during which time the race distance was extended from one mile to one-and-a-half miles) until 1787 before Lord Derby tasted victory, thanks to a win from his thoroughbred horse, Sir Peter Teazle.

As public interest in the Derby grew, attendances swelled from around 8,000 in 1795 to ten times that figure in 1823, with everyone from the working class to the aristocracy flocking to Epsom Downs to enjoy what had quickly established itself not only as a major sporting event, but also as one of the biggest occasions on the social calendar.

The formative years of the Derby were a world away from the polished spectacle we see at Epsom today. The vast crowds (many of whom knew next to nothing about racing) brought with them a huge side show that often overshadowed the race itself, with all manner of vices catered for, from sideshow games to illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches in a sprawl of tents erected across the Downs.

By the late 1820s, the general public slowly but surely began to gain a knowledge of the more important events on the racing calendar, with meetings at the likes of Doncaster, Newmarket, Chester and Ascot attracting larger audiences aside from the usual high-society attendees. And in 1827, local printer William Dorling produced the first race card, which told punters not only the list of runners, but also their owners, pedigrees, jockeys and odds.


Sheikh Mohammed enjoys his maiden Derby victory

Popularity and protest

The 1913 Derby provided the backdrop for one of the most important events in UK history, when protesting suffragette Emily Davison dashed onto the course during the race, bringing down King George V’s horse. While both the King’s horse, Anmer, and the jockey, Herbert Jones, made a full recovery, Davison suffered a fracture to her skull, sending her into a coma from which she would never emerge. She was pronounced dead four days after the race.

While many in the racing fraternity were angered by Davison’s actions, the resulting media coverage raised awareness of her cause massively and, by 1918, the British government bowed to public pressure, giving women the right to vote if they were over 30 years old and were either a property owner or married to a property owner. Ten years later, the age limit was reduced to 21, the same as for men.

The modern era of the Derby has seen some starring performances from some of the greatest horses and jockeys ever to take part in the sport. From Sea-Bird’s dominant performance in the 1965 Derby and Nijinsky’s 1970 victory ridden by Lester Piggott on his way to a stunning Triple Crown, to the legendary Shergar, who won the 1981 Derby by a record 10 lengths before being kidnapped in 1983 and becoming the subject of a £2 million ransom, the 20th Century produced some spectacular moments.

A legacy confirmed

The 21st Century is proving to be just as exciting, with scintillating performances from the likes of Galileo in 2001, Sea The Stars in 2009 and, of course, Masar in 2018, who gave Sheikh Mohammed, the Ruler of Dubai and the largest ever investor in the history of the sport, his first Derby win as an owner, beating heavily backed Saxon Warrior.


Noted horse enthusiast Queen Elizabeth at the 2018 Derby

With an incredible 239 years of history behind it, the Derby is quite rightly regarded as one of the most special events on the sporting calendar. The intense nature of the Britain’s richest horse race is difficult to explain, but the words Benjamin Disraeli uses to describe the 1837 Derby in his novel Sybil ring true. “A few minutes, only a few minutes, and the event that for 12 months has been the pivot of so much calculation, of such subtle combinations, of such deep conspiracies, round which the thought and passion of the sporting world have hung like eagles, will be recorded in the fleeting tablets of the past. But what minutes! Count them by sensation and not by calendars, and each moment is a day and the race a life.”

Sheikh Mohammed would no doubt agree with that.


Masar led the pack in 2018

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Last Updated: Fri 15 Jun 2018 12:51 AM GST

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