Al Shaikh Closing In On His Derby Dream

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Ahmad Al Shaikh, second right, in the Goodwood winner's enclosure with two of his sons | Racingfotos.com

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In racing, as in life, it's always good to have a dream, and for owner Ahmad Al Shaikh, it's a simple one.

“It has always been my dream to win the Derby,” says the Dubaian businessman. 

To that end, he is not doing too badly, especially not for an owner with a relatively small string of horses. Al Shaikh has been represented in the last two Derbys, with the 2020 runner-up Khalifa Sat (Ire) (Free Eagle {Ire}), and last year by the G3 Chester Vase winner Youth Spirit (Ire) (Camelot {GB}), who finished eighth.

As we speak at Meydan a day ahead of Dubai's biggest race day, Al Shaikh's thoughts have already turned to the start of the Flat season in Britain where the majority of his horses are based. Among his team of 12 he has another Classic hope for the year in the British Stallion Studs EBF Convivial Maiden winner Hoo Ya Mal (GB) (Territories {Ire}).

“For me, I always like to have a mile or mile-and-a-quarter horse. But in my mind always is the Derby, and when you buy a mile-and-a-quarter horse, there is always the hope that he might be a Derby horse,” Al Shaikh says.

“Last year I also bought five 2-year-olds who should be able to race at a mile and a half. I am not the guy to support the sprinters.”

A feature of the success Al Shaikh has enjoyed in recent years is that it has been with horses well selected at reasonable prices. Khalifa Sat was bought by his trainer Andrew Balding for €40,000 at the Goffs Orby Sale, while Al Shaikh's agent Federico Barberini bought Youth Spirit for €48,000 at Arqana's August Yearling Sale. Hoo Ya Mal, a grandson of the G1 Juddmonte International S. winner One So Wonderful (GB) (Nashwan) was picked up at Tattersalls October Book 1 for 40,000gns from breeder Meon Valley Stud.

“I think he's a good horse,” says the owner of the 105-rated Hoo Ya Mal, whose juvenile form has a pretty solid look to it. His three runs to date saw him finish third to subsequent Group 1 winner El Bodegon (Ire) (Kodiac {GB}) on debut at Sandown, before winning York's valuable Convivial Maiden and then being beaten just a nose in the Listed Flying Scotsman S. by Noble Truth (Fr) (Kingman {GB}), who went on to be runner-up in the G1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere.

Al Shaikh continues, “I don't know if he's a Group 1 horse or not but I think he is the best horse I have. He will run in a trial, in the Craven Stakes, and hopefully from there he will go to the Guineas, and we will see thereafter.”

Al Shaikh has been directly involved in racing as an owner since 2006, when he was gifted a horse by Sheikh Mohammed. In that time, his colours have been carried by the top sprinter Emaraaty Ana (GB) (Shamardal) during the Kevin Ryan trainee's juvenile season which saw him win the G2 Gimcrack S., and he also campaigned the G2 Queen Mary S. runner-up Hoyam (GB) (Royal Applause {GB}).

“My first horse was given to me by Sheikh Mohammed. She was a filly, she became a broodmare and I have continued with that,” says Al Shaikh, who now boards five mares at Charlie Wyatt's Dukes Stud just outside Newmarket. With two of those he will be supporting Khalifa Sat, who is now standing his first season in Ireland at Lacken Stud. 

“Because that first horse was a gift and she was given to me at the sales in Newmarket, I decided to keep her there to be trained. I love going to the races in England. My business is in Dubai in real estate but I get to England every summer with my family, and if I have runners I fly over.”

He adds of the Covid-interrupted season of 2020, “I really missed not being able to go to England for the Derby when Khalifa Sat ran. I had been dreaming that he could finish in the top five. He surprised me, my family and my friends, and that time for me I felt like I had won the Derby. I was so pleased to come second.”

Al Shaikh, who recently announced the appointment of rising star of the weighing-room Marco Ghiani as his retained jockey, also has plans to expand his Green Team Racing banner to include friends and associates in a select syndicate. 

With his British-based horses at various yards, including those of Andrew Balding, Kevin Ryan, and Owen Burrows, Al Shaikh also has a couple in his home nation with Doug Watson. And his stated commitment to the Derby is backed up by the fact that along with Hoo Ya Mal, whose name is derived from a type of Arabic sea shanty, he also has the Ryan-trained Green Team (Fr) (Wootton Bassett {GB}) remaining among this year's entries. For the 2023 Epsom Classic, his four nominated horses include a homebred colt by Sea The Moon (Ger) and a half-brother to Hoo Ya Mal, by Mukhadram (GB).  

A clear enthusiast, both on the breeding and owning front, he says, “I study the sales and I read the catalogues with Federico. I tell him which horses I am interested in and he advises me on whether it's a good choice. I know the pedigrees but I cannot see the physical side, so Federico looks after all of that for me. He is very down to earth, and we are now friends more than anything. We have a saying in our language, 'if you have success with a team, don't change your team'.”

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