Cornelius Lysaght pays tribute to Prince Khalid Abdullah, one of the most successful owner-breeders of all time who has died aged 83.
Even by the spectacular standards of winning jockey Lester Piggott, no one could have predicted just how significant the success of a two-year-old named Charming Native at a Monday evening fixture at Windsor in May 1979 would prove to be.
Margaret Thatcher had just become Britain’s first female prime minister, Art Garfunkel was continuing to dominate the charts with his ballad Bright Eyes and the Jeremy Tree-trained Charming Native, given a characteristically power-packed ride through the closing stages by Piggott, acted as launchpad to the most consistently efficient and influential international horse racing and thoroughbred-breeding operation of the modern era.
From Windsor’s Blue Charm Stakes onwards, jockeys wearing Prince Khalid Abdullah’s instantly-recognisable silks – green body, with a pink sash and white sleeves, chosen apparently because they matched his curtains – steered their mounts to victory in practically every major flat racing prize there is.
Many of those winners, initially cleverly purchased but later mainly home-bred, went on to transmit their brilliance to future generation after future generation at stud, under the Juddmonte Farms banner, founded in 1977 and masterminded by its owner from an HQ at Banstead Manor near Newmarket with tentacles across Europe, North America and beyond.
With much of the progeny then racing before retiring to stud, it meant that something of an empire was soon created with Abdullah, a close cousin of the Saudi Royal family born in the racecourse-town of Taif in western Saudi Arabia, at the top.
He was known universally in the racing and breeding world as ‘the Prince’ – the sound of trainer Sir Henry Cecil, saying that “I’ll have to speak to the Prince” or “the Prince will decide” still echoes in my ears - though it was always said that the famously private and understated Prince, also the head of a vast business conglomerate, preferred the description of ‘plain old’ Mr K Abdullah, which always appeared on the race-card next to his runners.
At the forefront of the influx of racehorse owners with Middle Eastern roots in the 1970s and 1980s – Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai’s first win was in 1977 – Abdullah’s Known Fact provided his first Classic-race trophy after the then unprecedented (at that level) disqualification, for causing interference, of the French challenger Nureyev in the 2000 Guineas of 1980.
The win by Known Fact, also trained by Tree at Beckhampton stables, Wiltshire where he was later succeeded by his assistant Roger Charlton, was the first in a British Classic by an Arab owner, and was to signal a changing of the guard in a sport previously dominated by the old-fashioned, quite likely aristocratic and/or titled ‘home-grown’ breeder/owner.
The magnificent Warning – I’ve always loved that naming: he’s the result of a mating between Known Fact and the mare Slightly Dangerous – was the first homebred to win at Group One level, in the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood in 1988, and he was followed by a string of Classic and other Group and Grade One success stories both on turf and on dirt.
Best known of his runners to a more contemporary audience are the unbeaten Frankel, named after one of Abdullah’s principal trainers, Bobby Frankel who succumbed to cancer in 2009, and the Frankie Dettori-ridden, John Gosden-trained filly Enable, provider of two of six Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe trophies.
But the full list is nearly as long as the Rowley Mile racecourse itself, also containing great names like Rainbow Quest, Dancing Brave, Danehill, Zafonic – every one of them, like Frankel and Enable, ‘horses of a lifetime’, and, extraordinarily, all ridden by jockeys wearing the same green pink and white.