This Side Up: Empty Stands and Full Hearts in Dubai

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Sheikh HamdanHorsephotos

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The show must go on. After a year of pandemic, that turns out to be pretty much the default setting of our commendably resilient species. And you couldn't ask for a much better example than the staging of the G1 Dubai World Cup–just three days after the death of Sheikh Hamdan; behind closed doors, and behind closed faces.

At the best of times, it's difficult for family and friends of public figures to grieve in a duly intimate register. Throw in the frigid constrictions of Covid, with no tactile consolation whatsoever, and the anomalies between formality and anguish become harder yet.

An industry that has benefitted from unprecedented investment by the Maktoum brothers has sometimes been made well aware, including recently, that a common love of the horse will never place us all into a single, harmonious cultural key. All societies have their different superiorities; and all societies, we hope, can learn from one another. Images of the Sheikh's funeral, however, remind us of the fundamental bonds that unite humanity, regardless of culture or rank. And any of us who have suffered bereavement, not least over this last year, must feel sympathy for those who were obliged to pray wide apart, in masks, as they bade farewell not to a rich and powerful royal, but to a kinsman or friend.

Because every syllable spoken about the founder of Shadwell this week invites us to penetrate that forbidding public profile, so somber and reserved, to discover the humor, fidelity and human insight unanimously emphasized by those horseman who reflected on the privilege of his patronage. Their testimony came as no surprise. For decades, talking with his men had permitted no doubt of the authentic human connection he achieved with them. You can always tell when a boss is respected because of dollars and cents, and when cherished for deeper riches.

In my younger days I remember friends, who were more interested in betting, deploring Sheikh Hamdan's loyalty to certain trainers. But that was actually how you began to get a measure of the man, and it must be said that the same friends tended to exult in the discomfiture of the British horse racing Establishment when the Sheikh enjoyed spectacular rewards for persevering with Dick Hern, confined to a wheelchair by a hunting accident, when even the Queen had moved on. (The dam of Nashwan (Blushing Groom {Fr}) had, of course, herself been culled by the royal stud.) Americans, likewise, observed the Sheikh's faith in the durability of spirit and horsemanship in Kiaran McLaughlin when he, too, encountered physical adversity.

This was a man who, between his religion and his horses, developed a fatalism that staggered any who ever had to bring him bad news. Rick Nichols, long-serving manager of the Kentucky farm, came to view his employer as a genuine father figure; and, of course, as a true horseman. The Sheikh knew the physique and pedigree of each and every individual in his worldwide cavalry. (Certainly it was a relief to Nichols to deal with such a man: he had once had a client rant at him for 10 minutes over his failure to get her mare covered, when it was already mid-April. “Ma'am,” he replied, when eventually given the chance. “I thought it'd be a good idea to let her foal before we breed her.”)

How the Shadwell show goes on, from here, remains to be seen. So soon after mourning another breed-shaping investor from the Gulf, Prince Khalid, our industry is certainly being reminded never to be complacent in such benefactors. At Juddmonte and Shadwell alike, you would hope that their branded pedigrees have been cultivated with too much love and patience for any abrupt disbandment. But nothing can be taken for granted, when these empires have been built by so personal a dynamic.

Whatever the future may hold, those cavernous stands at Meydan will seem to ring aptly hollow Saturday. Conceived as a showcase of the Maktoum family's homeland, the 25th World Cup night will have a very different symbolism: at once a memorial, and a lavish gesture of hope. At some point, after all, we will all have to pick up the pieces. That's true, emotionally, of those who have just interred a departed kinsman, in rites of scrupulous and moving humility; and it's also true, of course, of whole economies, whole societies.

Success for the Sheikh's brother in the World Cup would have an obvious poignancy, but let's hope that won't cast any kind of shadow over the sense of achievement to which his trainer would be entitled. You have to love the way Mike Stidham, an exemplary horseman of the type often identified by this family, has nurtured Mystic Guide (Ghostzapper); and the horse has long hinted at unusual flair, even when he put out that call for blinkers in the GIII Peter Pan at Saratoga last summer.

So I hope the barn gets a deserved result after Proxy (Tapit) was a little disappointing last weekend, even taking into account a pretty messy trip. With Godolphin already represented by Essential Quality (Tapit) on the Derby trail, I guess Proxy may be given the chance to regroup now.

It's yet another son of Tapit who gets his final rehearsal in what will, for many of us, be an even bigger focus this weekend. Greatest Honour has looked a born Derby colt this winter but in the GI Florida Derby meets the last horse to beat him, Known Agenda (Curlin), who got it back together in frightening fashion last time for a trainer dominating this meet.

Todd Pletcher originally had Shadwell's unbeaten Malathaat, also by Curlin, lined up for the GII Gulfstream Park Oaks, but she was not declared. This filly was among those who joined Pletcher following the retirement of McLaughlin last year, much to his delight after just missing out on his “first-round draft choice” as a $1.05-million Keeneland September yearling.

Though he had been ill for some time, the Sheikh had remained ever invigorated by the next cycle coming through, whether home-bred or found at the sales. Sadly, because of the pandemic, he was denied the tonic of attending Royal Ascot last year when Shadwell had no fewer than six winners. Hopefully, the greatest shows of our sport will soon be playing to full galleries once again. But while Sheikh Hamdan was as far from being a showman as it's possible to be–much like Prince Khalid, in fact–it won't feel the same without two of the all-time great impresarios.

Happily, whatever happens to their work now, both have long since guaranteed a legacy that will endure in the breed for generations after we have all followed them over the horizon. So, yes: to that extent, at least, we know the show will go on.

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