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A Breeding Ground for Resentment

Horse racing: A Saudi prince's roots and money have inspired grumbling that will only increase if his horse wins the Triple Crown today.

June 08, 2002|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sport of thoroughbred racing clings to a romantic notion about the kind of horse that wins the Triple Crown--and the kind of man who owns that horse. The archetypal owner patiently breeds his stock, preferably on a Kentucky farm, waiting for a magical foal. Or he spots a gifted yearling at auction and nurtures it to glory.

This vision does not apply to Prince Ahmed bin Salman and his prized possession, War Emblem, who now stand on the brink of racing's rarest feat.

The Saudi prince is one of several Middle Eastern royals who have risen to the top of the American scene by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the best horses. His farm is in Southern California, not bluegrass country. He purchased War Emblem less than two months ago.

So the grumbling began shortly after the jet-black colt won the Kentucky Derby last month and grew louder with a subsequent victory at the Preakness. Critics bridle at the idea that, in their minds, Bin Salman will have bought his way to the first Triple Crown in nearly a quarter century, and only the 12th ever, with a victory today in the Belmont Stakes.

But there is another aspect to the controversy.

For all the millions spent, the prince is the first Arab to field a Derby winner and tempt history. While he is said to be ecstatic these days--"like a little kid," according to a friend--Bin Salman must also contend with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

People within the sport wonder if fans are rooting against him. Jimmy Breslin, the famed columnist, has urged him to stay away from the Belmont in Elmont, N.Y., and other newspaper stories have made references to high gas prices and the fact that most of the hijackers held Saudi passports.

"It doesn't surprise me," said B. Wayne Hughes, a friend and fellow owner. "Look, we're in difficult times right now. The Middle East is on everyone's mind and he's from the Middle East."

The 43-year-old prince, elegant with a clipped mustache and pocket handkerchief, has calmly insisted that he is a businessman, not a politician. But he did not respond to interview requests for this story, and the situation clearly rankles those close to him.

They describe someone of unexpected exuberance who wraps friends in big embraces, lifting them off the ground after a victory. They speak of his penchant for laughter and passion for horses.

"I feel bad for him that this even has to be a topic," said Gary Stevens, one of his favorite jockeys. His trainer, Bob Baffert, no stranger to controversy, reacted abruptly when asked to describe the prince.

"He's very pro-American," Baffert said. "That's all I can say."

Arabs have been a small but influential presence in United States racing since 1980 when sheiks from the royal family of Dubai began attending the Keeneland horse sales in Lexington, Ky. In the last three years, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid has spent $126 million at Keeneland, and his brother, Sheik Hamdan bin Zayed, $70 million. The most active North American owners spent $30 million to $48 million.

"There are mixed feelings about this," said Jason Levin, a journalist who chronicled the brothers in his book "From the Desert to the Derby." The industry "is happy to have these guys spend all this money at the sales, but the old-line Kentuckians and the breeders would rather not see them come back and win the big races."

Though Bin Salman is a heavy hitter, he ranks below the Dubai sheiks with $30 million in Keeneland purchases since 1999. And his arrival to racing was less splashy.

As a young man studying comparative culture at UC Irvine in the early 1980s--and not telling anyone he was royalty--he called on a local trainer named Richard Mulhall and began to build a modest stable, or what passes for modest in this sport.

"We never paid more than $30,000 for a horse," Mulhall recalled. "A lot of cheap claimers. Just for the fun of it."

Over the next decade, the prince dabbled in racing, drifted away, then called Mulhall to say he was "really bored and wanted back." This time he was serious, hiring the trainer to manage a well-appointed farm near the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia and forming the Thoroughbred Corp. with an eye toward spending.

At a 1996 auction, Bin Salman noticed an unraced filly named Sharp Cat and asked the advice of prominent trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who liked the horse but warned, "She's not going to be cheap." Bin Salman bought her for $900,000, a record sum for a 2-year-old filly. By 1998, Sharp Cat had won $2 million in purses. "That was his first [love]," Stevens said. "He really got attached to her."

As Thoroughbred Corp. acquired one pricey horse after another, Hughes recalled telling the prince: "You push all us Americans around with your money and ruin the sale for the rest of us." It wasn't criticism, just a friendly jab. Bin Salman later announced that his wife wanted to meet Hughes.

"Why?" the American asked.

"Because no one has ever spoken to me like that," the prince replied.

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