LEXINGTON, Ky. – For nearly 40 years, the ruler of Dubai has spent huge sums of money here in central Kentucky. On thousands of acres of lush bluegrass with gently rolling hills mapped by limestone and plank fences. On horses – stallions and mares to stock his farms with foals and yearlings bought in the sales ring.
All on a quest to win a $ 3 million Kentucky Derby race.
After 11 failed attempts, the leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, finally has a horse with a real chance of winning the Derby, America’s most famous race. Essential Quality is the 2-1 favorite from the morning line to win its 147th race on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
The preliminary discussions between the insiders of the race concern all that the passion, perseverance and money of Sheikh Mohammed accomplished in the sport of kings. The international human rights scandal over the role of the Sheikh in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, one of his daughters, was not explicitly discussed.
But others speak out. On Wednesday, a group of human rights lawyers and University of Louisville students filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking them to exclude Sheikh Mohammed and Essential Quality from the Derby.
“The Horse Racing Commission must also use its authority to end its involvement in Kentucky horse racing, at least until Princess Latifa is released from captivity,” the document said.
The complaint came a week after a panel of United Nations human rights experts, including members of a panel that deals with enforced disappearances and violence against women, asked Dubai for proof that Sheikha Latifa was still alive and called for his immediate release.
“Evidence of his life and assurances regarding his well-being are urgently needed,” UN analysts said. In recent years, videos have surfaced of Sheikha Latifa saying she was imprisoned in a Dubai palace and feared for her life. Her father, she said in one video, “only cares about himself and his ego.”
“I’m making this video because it might be the last video I make,” she said.
It is not the first time that Sheikh Mohammed’s treatment of the women in his family has sparked outrage. Last year in Britain, a judge found he abducted another girl, Shamsa, from the streets of Cambridge in 2000, took her by helicopter to France, then returned to Dubai. In addition, his youngest wife, Princess Haya, also left Dubai fearing for her life after being subjected to a campaign of intimidation and harassment.
The UAE’s diplomatic missions in New York and Dubai did not respond to requests for comment.
In Europe and especially Britain, where Sheikh Mohammed has even larger financial interests in real estate and the thoroughbred industry, the disappearances have prompted calls for financial sanctions and travel bans. against the man who was a guest at Queen Elizabeth II’s racecourse. The British Horseracing Authority has been pressured to exclude Sheikh Mohammed from his “fit and suitable person test”, but has yet to do so.
“His behavior is irrelevant,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “He should be persona non grata at these big events.”
The UAE is an important US ally in the Middle East, especially as the Biden administration tries to contain Iran. The United States’ response to the UN statement has been hushed up.
“We take these reports seriously and are monitoring the situation closely,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We take seriously all reports of people detained against their will and reaffirm that the right not to be arbitrarily detained is a universal human right.”
In 2018, Sheikha Latifa, 35, fled Dubai aboard a yacht, but was handed over to Emirati security officers by Indian commandos who raided the boat and seized her. She has not been seen in public since, except for an appearance at a luncheon attended by Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland. At the time, Robinson said Sheikha Latifa was mentally troubled and receiving good care from her family, later telling the BBC that she had been “horribly cheated”.
Here in Kentucky, where bluegrass is sown with the riches of Sheikh Mohammed, no one wants to talk about him beyond the chances of essential quality finally delivering him the blanket of roses.
After all, Sheikh Mo, as it’s called here, is an economic impact event for one man. He employs hundreds of Kentuckians. Most September he arrives at Blue Grass Airport in a private jumbo plane for the Keeneland Yearling Sale. He examines horses alongside breeders and hardboot owners, often sporting a windbreaker in royal blue from his family’s Godolphin racing stable.
And Sheikh Mo is spending – hundreds of millions of dollars, so far, to win auctions and drive up the prices of the horses he underbids on.
As Arthur Hancock III, a fourth-generation thoroughbred breeder once said, “If one September that big old plane wasn’t at the airport, you’d have a lot of hearts sinking here.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission did not respond to a request for comment. Jimmy Bell, the president of Darley America, declined to be interviewed about the sheikh or his US operation.
Shannon Arvin, Keeneland’s new president and CEO, said the sales company primarily deals with Bell and its staff.
“I am not very familiar with the facts or the circumstances surrounding other issues regarding Sheikh Mohammed,” she said.
In the 1980s, the Maktoum family recognized that Dubai could not prosper with a dwindling oil reserve and set out to diversify the economy and become the financial capital of the United Arab Emirates, a country comprising seven emirates that achieved its independence from Great Britain in 1971.
In thoroughbred racing, Sheikh Mohammed combined one of his great interests with his ambition to make Dubai the Singapore of the Middle East. It has commercial ranching operations and thousands of acres in seven countries, from Europe to Australia to Japan.
His horses have won more than 5,000 races, competing around the world at the highest levels of racing, including victories in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France, the Epsom Derby in England and the Melbourne Cup in Australia. . In North America, Sheikh Mohammed’s horses have won over $ 60 million, and Godolphin has won the Eclipse Outstanding Owner Award three times.
The Sheikh is unlikely to be at Churchill Downs to watch Essential Quality attempt to win one of the few races in the world that has eluded him. While Sheikh Mohammed is sometimes seen at races in Europe, he rarely attends races on American tracks. He is however a staple of the Keeneland sale, where he evolves among riders in jeans and with a coterie of advisers. He’s considered friendly but not overly familiar, and he can supercharge the auction ring when he sees a horse he wants.
The essential quality is the proof of the evolution of Sheikh Mohammed’s operation in this country. Unlike many of his Derby competitors (the best was Frosted, who finished fourth in 2015), who were bred, trained and raced overseas, this gray colt was born here. He was the 2-year-old champion from last year, is undefeated in five starts in America and has racked up over $ 2.2 million.
Essential Quality is trained by Louisville native Brad Cox, who won the 2020 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer. He too has tried to stay focused on the circuit and stay away from international intrigue.
“I mean, as far as the American race goes, it’s – in my eyes, it’s the greatest race there is,” Cox said via teleconference. “I think most people in the industry would agree with that. And I know Sheikh Mohammed wanted to win the race for several years.
Cox, like others interviewed here, did not speak about abducted and imprisoned girls and harassed and intimidated wives. He said he considers himself lucky, as do most of the thoroughbreds here and in Europe who depend on the patronage of the Sheikh.
“They had an elegant organization that obviously dealt with some of the best premium blood stocks in the world. And it was just a real honor to train for such a world empire and to have a horse like this.
Lara jakes contribution to reports.