Barely a month after his prized colt stumbled from the gate in the Belmont Stakes, losing his bid to win a Triple Crown, influential horse owner Prince Ahmed bin Salman died Monday of a heart attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was 43.
A major figure on the thoroughbred scene, Bin Salman operated from a well-appointed farm near Santa Anita, using the wealth he accumulated as an international publisher to acquire and train the best young horses. War Emblem made him the first Arab to own a Kentucky Derby winner.
Along the way, the prince faced occasional anti-Arab sentiments and complaints that he was buying his way into the winner's circle. When he failed to show up at the Belmont, citing "family obligations," many wondered if it was in reaction to the criticisms.
About that time, he reportedly began complaining of stomach problems and visited the hospital off and on the final six weeks of his life. The Daily Racing Form reported that Bin Salman had minor surgery three days ago. The prince's private secretary was quoted as saying that the surgery was unrelated to the ailment that led to his death.
As the racing world expressed its shock, acquaintances recalled him as an elegant man with clipped mustache and pocket handkerchief, unexpectedly casual for a member of Saudi royalty and devoted to racing.
"Very few people brought as much passion, excitement and joy to the game as he did," trainer Wayne Lukas said. "He not only enjoyed himself, but he wanted everybody around him to enjoy themselves."
A son of Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the powerful governor of Riyadh, Bin Salman came to the United States as a young man. Studying comparative culture at UC Irvine in the early 1980s, he worked with local trainer Richard Mulhall to assemble a modest stable.
For years, racing took a backseat to his subsequent duties as chairman of Saudi Research & Marketing Ltd., whose holdings include the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, among the world's leading Arabic newspapers. But after helping build the company into a major publisher, Bin Salman returned to horses with zeal.
In the mid-1990s, he hired Mulhall to run his newly formed Thoroughbred Corp. and they became regulars at auctions across the nation. Among their early purchases was Sharp Cat, a filly that eventually won $2 million in purses. More victories came with Officer, Spain and Anees, who won the 1999 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Perhaps his best horse was Point Given, which won the Preakness and Belmont while helping Thoroughbred Corp. rank second in North America with $8 million in purses last year.
Yet for all Bin Salman's success, a small circle of friends knew him equally well for his sense of humor. He spoke of War Emblem being his best investment since oil. Mentioning his wife at an awards ceremony, he slyly informed the American audience that he had only one.
"At first, you hear he's a prince and you don't know how to talk to him," said Victor Espinoza, the jockey who rode War Emblem. "But he was like any other guy. A very nice person. When you were talking to him, you didn't think you were talking to a prince."
So friends were dismayed by the grumbling that accompanied his bid for the Triple Crown, which no horse has won since Affirmed in 1978. Critics pointed out that Bin Salman bought War Emblem for $900,000 just three weeks before the Derby, which hardly fit the traditional mode of nurturing a talented yearling. As the jet-black colt continued to win, Bin Salman had to contend with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Jimmy Breslin, the well-known columnist, urged him to stay away from the Belmont in Elmont, N.Y., and other newspaper stories made references to high gas prices and the fact that most of the hijackers held Saudi passports.
Still, acquaintances said he was ecstatic. And if he was beginning to suffer from physical ailments, few in the racing community seemed to know. Trainer Wally Dollase recalled that Bin Salman's eldest brother, Prince Fahd, died of a heart attack last year.
"It's hard to believe," Dollase said after hearing of Bin Salman's similar demise. "It's a big loss to our game."
Staff writer Bob Mieszerski contributed to this story.
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*--* Breeding Ground for Success How Prince Ahmed bin Salman's Thoroughbred Corp. fared each year: Year Starts 1st 2nd 3rd Earnings 1/1/02 to 7/21/02 179 44 25 20 $5,053,068 2001 367 66 58 48 $8,000,763 2000 326 54 60 46 $5,880,705 1999 272 56 51 32 $4,598,903 1998 138 35 22 20 $3,430,001 1997 115 24 21 19 $2,432,820 1996 48 6 4 9 $695,810 1995 30 4 4 4 $213,950 *1994 13 2 3 3 $282,052 *From Daily Racing Form American Racing Manual; all other statistics from Equibase
Eclipse Award Winners: Jewel Princess, best older filly or mare, 1996; Anees, best 2-year-old male, 1999; Point Given, horse of the year, best 3-year-old male, 2001
Triple Crown Race Winners: Point Given, Preakness, Belmont, 2001; War Emblem, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, 2002
Breeders' Cup Race Winners: Jewel Princess, Distaff, 1996; Anees, Juvenile, 1999; Spain, Distaff, 2000
English Triple Crown: Oath, English Derby, 1999
Top Money Earners: Point Given, $3,968,500; Spain, $3,507,542; War Emblem, $2,891,000