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Turf Account

Racing’s shame

British racing should have nothing to do with Sheikh Mohammed

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I don’t usually turn to the New Yorker for its take on racing. Even on US dirt tracks. And its new podcast series, The Runaway Princesses, isn’t really about racing. Except that it is.

The New Yorker’s blurb describes the podcast as: “A story of why the women in Sheikh Mohammed’s family keep trying to run away and what’s happening to them when they do.” It is riveting, and I recommend it even if you have no interest in racing, just as a piece of brilliant investigative journalism. 

But if racing is your thing, then you really need to listen, because Sheikh Mohammed is the man on whom British racing is — this is no exaggeration — utterly dependent.

As ruler of Dubai, and vice president, prime minister and minister of defence of the United Arab Emirates, he is said to be worth $18 billion. Through his Godolphin stable, with its famous blue silks (and before that Sheikh Mohammed’s personal maroon and white) he has invested billions in racing for 40 years — most obviously in horses, trainers, yards and jockeys. 

Perhaps even more significant has been his contribution to the ecosystem in and around racing, especially in Newmarket where a large proportion of the local economy — pubs, shops, restaurants and such like — is effectively a Sheikh Mohammed mini-economy.

He has also built hundreds of homes for employees, refurbished yards to standards not previously known, and there have been over 200 graduates from Godolphin’s Flying Start programme who are now dotted across racing. Sheikh Mohammed is the man on whom the entire edifice of racing is built. Without him, flat racing — and given the knock-on impact it would have, all racing — would be unsustainable.

And he seems to be a nasty piece of work.

Two years ago, he was found in the High Court to have conducted a “campaign of fear, intimidation and harassment” against Princess Haya, an ex-wife, and that “domestic abuse” had been “conducted on a scale which is entirely outside the ordinary circumstances of cases heard in the family court”. Two years before that the High Court held that he had been responsible abducting of two of his daughters.

On any serious standard these two rulings alone should surely have seen him fall foul of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA)’s “fit and proper” criteria, under its Ownership Guidance “Honesty and Integrity” section: 

Particular consideration will be given to offences of dishonesty, fraud, and those relating to sexual conduct, violence, animal welfare and health and safety … The criteria to which the authority will have regard in assessing honesty and integrity include…whether the applicant has been the subject of any adverse finding by a judge in any civil proceedings. 

In 2021 the BHA said: “These are complex matters involving an overseas state with strategic ties to the United Kingdom. The matters go well beyond the world of racing” and that Sheikh Mohammed makes “a significant investment and contribution to the British racing industry”. Well, yes. But that’s not the issue.

When, however, you listen to the podcast, it seems almost inconceivable that he should be allowed anywhere near a sport with a “fit and proper” test. There are recordings by Princess Latifa, his daughter, whose attempt at escape made global headlines before she was captured by Indian special forces from a boat off the coast of Goa and returned to Dubai — according to a UN investigation as part of a deal in which a businessman in Dubai was sent to India to face bribery charges wanted for bribery in India.

The High Court found that after her return she was imprisoned and tortured. In the podcast she speaks of being seized off her mattress every night by guards who beat her feet with a cane so badly that she was unable to walk. She had to drag herself on the floor to move. The podcast is careful to state that “Sheikh Mohammed’s attorneys deny that he imprisoned or mistreated Latifa.”

The podcast also includes chauffeurs who claim to have worked for Sheikh Mohammed who say their job was to drive prostitutes to and from his Surrey mansion and that on the way back some would be bloody, some in tears and that one who tried to escape was beaten. Again, it notes: “We should note that Sheikh Mohammed’s attorneys deny that he exploited sex workers.”

It is surely black and white: British racing should have nothing to do with Sheikh Mohammed. But as Mrs Merton put it to Debbie McGee: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” Money talks — and that’s the oldest story in the book.

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