A Century of Excellence, Part II

HH the Aga Khan IV with Zeddaan | Getty Images

One hundred years after the Aga Khan III made his first purchase at the Tattersalls July Sale, the bloodstock empire he built, and which has been carefully cultivated by his grandson, HH the Aga Khan IV, continues to thrive. Following Tuesday's first instalment of the early years of the Aga Khan Studs, the second part sees the baton pass in sad circumstances, heralding a major restructuring of the operation. The text is reproduced by kind permission from the Aga Khan Studs' centenary brochure, written by Emma Berry and John Berry.


The 1950s ushered in Marcus Marsh's tenure as trainer to the Aga Khan III at Fitzroy House in Newmarket, succeeding the ailing Frank Butters. Across town, Harry Wragg, who had set up at Abington Place in 1948, had charge of the horses raced by the Begum Aga Khan, including the 1951 Irish Derby winner Fraise Du Bois, and the 1951 Queen Anne Stakes winner Neron.

Marsh's tenure got off to the best possible start when Palestine won the 2,000 Guineas in the spring of 1950, followed by the St. James's Palace and Sussex Stakes before being retired to stand at Gilltown Stud.

Two years later, Marsh produced an even greater result when Tulyar enjoyed a magnificent campaign, most notably providing his owner with his fifth and final Derby victory. He raced seven times in 1952 for seven wins, his Derby triumph being followed by success in the Eclipse, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and the St Leger. By the end of the year, Tulyar had set two notable financial records. His earnings of £76,577 set a new record for a British-trained horse, and he was sold to the Irish National Stud for £250,000, a new world record price for a thoroughbred.

Tulyar had not been the stable's best juvenile of 1951. That honour fell to the fast filly Tayeh. Her dam Rivaz, a full-sister to Nasrullah, had been a brilliant juvenile in 1945, taking the Queen Mary Stakes and July Stakes. Rivaz became an excellent broodmare, producing six winners from her first seven foals. Tayeh, by Tehran, was very much her mother's daughter, her victory in the Molecomb Stakes enabling her to her to emulate the 1923 victory of her great grand-dam Mumtaz Mahal.

Although the Aga Khan III continued to have horses with Marcus Marsh after the latter's three-year contract had expired, he appointed Noel Murless as his principal British trainer in advance of the 1953 season. He also greatly increased the number of horses which he had in training in France, principally with Alec Head.

The promise of a sizeable intake of horses from the Aga Khan Studs had prompted Murless to leave Beckhampton and buy Warren Place in Newmarket. While still at Beckhampton he had trained Sir Reginald Macdonald-Buchanan's brilliant sprinter Abernant, the brilliant grey whose dam Rustom Mahal (a daughter of Rustom Pasha and Mumtaz Mahal) had been bought by Lady Macdonald Buchanan when the Aga Khan III had sent her to the sales in France. Abernant, widely regarded as the best British sprinter of the 20th century, was at least as brilliant as his grand-dam had been, and his many triumphs had ensured that the Aga Khan III and Prince Aly became very aware of Murless's skills.

Four years after Tayeh's Molecomb Stakes triumph, Rivaz produced the winner of the race again in Palariva. Trained by Alec Head, Palariva did much of her racing in England where her other victories included the King's Stand Stakes at Ascot and the King George Stakes at Goodwood. She subsequently played a vital role in the success of the Aga Khan Studs by becoming the grand-dam of one of the first top-class horses bred and raced by HH the Aga Khan IV, Kalamoun.

A Shared Passion

Rose Royale enjoyed a terrific season in 1957 when she landed the 1,000 Guineas, Prix du Moulin and Champion Stakes. Sadly, her Classic triumph and her victory on the Rowley Mile in the autumn came under different ownership registrations. The Aga Khan III passed away in June that year, meaning that she subsequently raced for Prince Aly Khan, a wonderful judge of a horse and a splendid sportsman who had been playing an ever more important role in the family's operation.  

He and his father had shared a passion for the thoroughbred and Prince Aly's enthusiasm and acumen ensured that the world-leading bloodstock operation which his father had built up over nearly four decades was in safe hands.

Tragically, Prince Aly survived his father by only three years. During that agonisingly brief period, Prince Aly enjoyed the thrill of racing one of the most special horses ever produced by the Aga Khan Studs: Petite Etoile, who was by Petition out of Star Of Iran, by Bois Roussel out of May Iran, by Bahram out of Mah Mahal, by Gainsborough out of Mumtaz Mahal.

Petite Etoile's career remains legendary. Racing for four seasons, she ran 19 times for 14 wins and five seconds. She was clearly good from the outset, but not the absolute superstar which she subsequently became. She was beaten eight lengths in a two-horse race at Manchester on debut as a two-year-old and she failed to maintain a family tradition when only second in the Molecomb Stakes. She started her three-year-old season as a 'second string', winning the Free Handicap on her resumption.

Petite Etoile's three-year-old career is astounding to modern eyes, comprising an interrupted run of victories in the Free Handicap over seven furlongs, the 1,000 Guineas over a mile, the Oaks over 12 furlongs, the Sussex Stakes over a mile, the Yorkshire Oaks over 12 furlongs, and the Champion Stakes over 10 furlongs. All the while, her public following was growing, her popularity boosted by the story of her reported preference to exercise on Newmarket Heath only with other grey horses and by the charisma of her owner.

Petite Etoile's splendid three-year-old campaign was the centrepiece of a true annus mirabilis for Prince Aly Khan, so much so that the Bloodstock Breeders' Review dubbed it 'Aly Khan's Year'. In Britain he became the first owner to accrue seasonal winnings in excess of £100,000. Across the Channel his horses with Alec Head were in similarly rich form. Saint Crespin won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe; Chief won the Prix Ganay, and Ginetta, a daughter of Tulyar, gave him his second successive Poule d'Essai des Pouliches victory, following that of Yia the previous year. Along with Taboun's 2,000 Guineas success came Fiorentina's win in the Irish 1,000 Guineas.

Barely A Dry Eye In The House

Tragically, Prince Aly Khan did not live to enjoy the further glories of these wonderful horses. He was fatally injured in a car crash in Paris in May 1960 and when Petite Etoile lined up three weeks later in the Coronation Cup at Epsom, she raced in the ownership of HH the Aga Khan IV. There was barely a dry eye in the house as she showed her customary burst of “devastating speed” to sprint past the previous year's Derby winner Parthia “as if he were a selling plater” in the final furlong. Emotions again ran high the following year when she contested the Aly Khan Memorial Gold Cup at Kempton, notwithstanding that she suffered a rare defeat that day when finishing second to Sir Winston Churchill's High Hat.

An era ended with the death of Prince Aly Khan, for whom joining his father in the running of one of the greatest owner/breeder operations in racing history had been a continuation as natural as night following day. In the words of Marcus Marsh in his autobiography Racing with the Gods, “the whole uncertainty of racing, the pageantry, the people, captured his imagination in a way that nothing else ever could…He had considerable expertise. Tutored by Michael Beary, he developed into one of Europe's top amateur rides and he always had a good eye for a horse. He made some brilliant buys at the yearling sales.”

Perhaps the last word on the racing empire developed by the Aga Khan III should go to respected English turf historian Peter Corbett. In his 2016 biography of Bahram, Corbett concludes, “It is clear that the Aga Khan III was the most remarkable owner and breeder. Starting from scratch in 1921 until 1961 when one of the last horses he bred, Petite Etoile, ran her final race, he was leading owner (in Great Britain) 13 times and leading breeder eleven.

“The achievements of the Aga Khan III in partnership with Frank Butters, Dick Dawson, George Lambton, Prince Aly Khan et al and continued by HH Aga Khan IV and in recent years assisted by his daughter, Princess Zahra, both on the racecourse and the breeding shed are unlikely to be surpassed.”

A Serious Dilemma

That HH the Aga Khan IV, as the result of the sudden and tragic death of his father, owned the winner of the Coronation Cup in both 1960 and '61 (Petite Etoile) gives a false impression of the level of his commitment to the sport at that stage. A thoroughly accomplished all-round sportsman, hitherto he had been at least as interested in tennis, rowing, ice-hockey and skiing (representing Iran in the men's downhill skiing competition at the winter Olympics in 1964) as racing, understandably working on the assumption that his father would be at the helm of the Aga Khan Studs for many years to come. Prince Aly Khan's unexpected death changed all that.

The racing and breeding empire of which HH the Aga Khan IV had suddenly become master was thriving at the highest level. In the same week that Petite Etoile won her first Coronation Cup, the Alec Head-trained Charlottesville won the Prix du Jockey-Club followed by the Grand Prix de Paris. Shortly afterwards came the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud triumph of Sheshoon, also trained by Head. However, the inheritance of these horses presented HH the Aga Khan IV with a serious dilemma: the decision of whether or not to maintain the bloodstock empire which his grandfather had created and which his father had continued to foster.  

It is not the family's way to do anything half-heartedly and, just as his grandfather had realised 40 years previously, the project must be done “thoroughly, or not at all”.

Typically, he did not take the decision lightly. Happily, from the point of view of the modern bloodstock world, he decided to maintain the studs and consequently to throw himself into the undertaking with enthusiasm and with commitment.

Mathet: An Inspired Appointment

One of the first steps in HH the Aga Khan IV's stewardship of the family's racing empire was to centralise the operation in France. The situation which he inherited had horses in England with Noel Murless and in France with Alec Head, as well as the small string raced by his step-grandmother Begum Aga Khan with Harry Wragg. Success was continuing to flow, such as the 1962 Prix Morny triumph of Darannour, but after careful and lengthy deliberation, he put into effect a major restructuring in 1964, centralising the operation in France with the horses under the care of Francois Mathet in Chantilly. This was an inspired appointment, one whose benefits persist to this day.

Mathet was long established as a master of his profession, training for the great French owner/breeders such as Francois Dupré and Mme. Leon Volterra. There was already a link between HH Aga Khan's family and Mme. Volterra, as the latter's late husband had raced the 1948 Derby winner My Love in partnership with the Aga Khan III the year before Volterra's death.

Even in advance, HH the Aga Khan IV's decision to appoint Mathet as his trainer looked a good one. With the wisdom of hindsight it was positively inspired. Mathet continued to train for his other owners, but his relationship with HH the Aga Khan IV developed into a very special one, their ultimately close friendship based on mutual respect. In an interview with Galop in 1978, HH the Aga Khan IV said of Mathet, “While I learned about breeding elsewhere and from others, everything I learned from racing I learned from him.”

The first champion whom Mathet trained for HH the Aga Khan IV was Zeddaan, winner in 1967 of five sprints including the Prix Robert Papin  and in 1968 of the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, the Prix d'Ispahan (which was then still open to three-year-olds) and the Prix de Seine-et-Oise. A son of the brilliant Nasrullah horse Grey Sovereign, Zeddaan was produced by the Vilmorin mare Vareta, who had won the Prix de la Foret as a two-year-old in 1954. His pedigree was suggestive of the Aga Khan III's famous dictum that the three most important qualities in a racehorse were “speed, speed and more speed” and on the racecourse he lived up to his lineage, his victories as a juvenile being so brilliant that it was surprising that he was subsequently able to stretch his speed to a mile, never mind to the 1850m of the Prix d'Ispahan.  

Vareta's legacy in the annals of the Aga Khan Studs has continued to develop, most notably with her Poule d'Essai des Poulains-winning great-grandson Ashkalani; and Zeddaan (who was a pure-breeding grey) became an influential stallion, most notably by producing Kalamoun in his first crop. This great father-and-son pair went on to form the nucleus of the Aga Khan Studs' roster in the 1970s (notwithstanding that Kalamoun tragically died after only five seasons) with Kalamoun at Ballymany in Ireland and Zeddaan in France.

A Flourishing Commitment

If the 1960s had been a steep learning curve for HH the Aga Khan IV when it came to the study required in order to oversee the continuance of his family's breeding and racing operation, the following decade could be loosely described as 'construction and reconstruction', both literally and genetically.

On the racing front, Francois Mathet was at the heart of that process of rebuilding while HH the Aga Khan IV had his horses trained solely in France. It wasn't until 1978 that he made a return to the English scene by sending yearlings to Sir Michael Stoute and Fulke Johnson-Houghton.

Kalamoun, from the family of Nasrullah, emulated his sire Zeddaan by winning the 1973 Poule d'Essai des Poulains, becoming the first of three winners of that French Classic during the decade for the successful partnership of Mathet and the Aga Khan. That same year, Kalamoun also won the Prix Lupin and Prix Jacques Le Marois. His stallion career was sadly short-lived as he died at the age of nine, but his influence on the breed, particularly in France, is felt still through descendants such as Kenmare, Highest Honor and Kendargent.

Arguably greater satisfaction was derived from the 1977 Poulains winner Blushing Groom. The son of Red God had been a rare foal purchase by HH the Aga Khan IV, but as his grandfather was the breeder of the colt's paternal grandsire Nasrullah and his grand-dam Aimee, he was certainly not unfamiliar with the family.

Though a Classic winner and also third in the Derby, which tested his stamina to beyond his limit, it was Blushing Groom's sensational two-year-old season for which he will be most notably remembered as a racehorse. Beaten just once on debut, he went on to secure a quartet of Group 1 victories in the Robert Papin, Morny, Salamandre and Grand Critérium and to be crowned champion juvenile. His exploits at stud were similarly remarkable, but by that stage he was not under the sole control of his breeder. 

Prior to the Derby, a deal was struck for Blushing Groom to stand in America at Gainesway Farm, with HH the Aga Khan IV retaining a number of shares. His passage to the USA was hastened by an impending embargo on the import of breeding stock following an outbreak of contagious equine metritis in Europe, meaning that Blushing Groom would not run again after finishing runner-up in the Prix Jacques Le Marois.

His purchase and subsequent syndication was however hugely influential for the Aga Khan Studs, for the stallion's valuation in excess of $6 million was to provide the financial wherewithal for HH the Aga Khan IV to make two further highly significant purchases which continue to underpin his operation to this day. Moreover, Kadyissa, a homebred filly from Blushing Groom's first crop, would go on to provide His Highness with the Derby winner Kahyasi.

Largely through the success of his outstanding son Nashwan, Blushing Groom was the champion sire of Great Britain and Ireland in 1989, and leading broodmare sire in 1988 and 1995.

Another son of Zeddaan, Nishapour, brought up back-to-back wins in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains for the owner/breeder and Mathet in 1978. By that stage, the Aga Khan had recently acquired all the stock of the late Francois Dupré. The repercussions of that decision have been felt through the ensuing decades but one horse in particular brought almost instantaneous success, as among the 83 bought from Madame Dupré was a yearling colt by High Top who would become known as Top Ville.

By 1979, he was the winner of the Prix du Jockey Club and Prix Lupin, helping HH the Aga Khan IV to become the leading owner in France that year for the first time since 1960. Hard on the heels of the Dupré purchase came the 1978 acquisition of Marcel Boussac's breeding empire which consisted of 144 horses, including Delsy, then a six-year-old mare, who would go on to produce Darshaan.

Naturally, the amalgamation of three significant operations meant a surge in numbers at the Aga Khan Studs. From 1977 to 1980, the broodmare band grew from 75 to 164. While the bloodlines were being expanded and enhanced, so too were the facilities required to give these thoroughbreds the best possible start in life.

Building work at Haras de Bonneval, which had been purchased in the 1960s, was completed in 1973 with a distinctive semi-circular main yard designed for maximum exposure to the sun. The 265-acre Normandy farm is also now home to the Aga Khan Studs' French-based stallions.

Aiglemont, HH the Aga Khan IV's private training centre at Gouvieux, just outside Chantilly, was built in 1977.

Perhaps the most momentous event of this time, however, occurred in Ireland. At Sheshoon Stud, early in March 1978, Sharmeen foaled a bay colt with a distinctive blaze and four white socks who would come to be known beyond just the racing cognoscenti for the best and worst of reasons. His name was Shergar.

Tomorrow: A breeder's greatest reward

The 100-year history of the Aga Khan Studs can be viewed via the online brochure. 

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

Copy Article Link

Liked this article? Read more like this.

  1. Naas Celebrates Centenary with Free Race Day
  2. New Aga Khan Stallions On Show During Arqana's Vente d'Elevage
  3. Derby Favourite Desert Crown Leaves Connections Purring After Gallop
  4. Public Vote For Derby-Winning HOF Inductee
  5. Zarkava To Visit Siyouni

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.