Sheik Mohammed's Expensive Horse Obsession The Kentucky Derby plays host to all sorts of royalty Saturday. Although he doesn't have a thoroughbred running this year, Sheik Mohammed of Dubai is an affluent horseman who is expected to attend and has sunk millions of dollars into the sport.
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Sheik Mohammed's Expensive Horse Obsession

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Sheik Mohammed's Expensive Horse Obsession

Sheik Mohammed's Expensive Horse Obsession

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When the horses break from the post during the 133rd Kentucky Derby this afternoon, Britain's Queen Elizabeth will be sitting in the stands. But she won't be the only royalty with an interest in the outcome.

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has spent $1.5 billion on horses since the early 1980s and is considered one of the world's biggest collectors of thoroughbreds. But none of his high-priced horses has won a Kentucky Derby, at least yet.

Daniel Roth has profiled Sheik Mohammed for the premiere show of Conde Nast Portfolio magazine. He joins us from New York.

Mr. Roth, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DANIEL ROTH (Reporter, Conde Nast Portfolio): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Going to be a good year for Sheik Mohammed at Churchill Downs?

Mr. ROTH: It's a rough year for Sheik Mohammed. And none of his horses ended up making it at this year, which is a problem. But he has one goal in mind, and that's to - not just win the Kentucky Derby - but to win the Kentucky Derby with a horse that is raised in Dubai. And none of his horses who are in Dubai had the stuff to be able to make it in Kentucky. So they won't be making the trip there this year.

SIMON: We should note that some of the progeny of some of these horses are running in the derby, right?

Mr. ROTH: He's got three horses that are born from these horses. So there are the Street Sense, there's Bwana Bull and Zanjero, and they're all born from some of Sheik Mohammed's stallions.

SIMON: Could a man of his means just be hiring the wrong people?

Mr. ROTH: He could be. But, you know, Sheik Mohammed says, I'm a horseman. I know that you have no idea what's going to happen. He says he doesn't blame his people. He never tells his people, you have to win the Kentucky Derby. He just says, find me the best horses. And the horses running at the Kentucky Derby are three-year-old horses. That's the equivalent of 15-year-olds in human terms. They have no idea what they're doing. This is their first time running this far. They've never seen this many horses together in one place. Anything can happen.

SIMON: Could you identify a reason why his strategy has apparently worked in Europe but, at least, so far, not in the U.S.?

Mr. ROTH: Well, there's a couple of reasons. One is that Sheik Mohammed is really focused on turf racing and that's racing on grass. In the U.S., the Kentucky Derby, the horses race on dirt. And it's a different type of racing -you have to understand the different type of horse. You have to know what to look for in this horse.

And the second thing is that he is flying his horses from Dubai to Kentucky to try to race them. That's a very difficult transition, a lot of horse people say. He says that's crazy that it will work. It's no problem flying these horses, you know, the 12 hours on his private 747 that he built just for them to be able to go back and forth. But so far he hasn't been able to find one that can make the trip and come in and win the Derby.

SIMON: He has a private 747 just for his horses?

Mr. ROTH: He has the only one in the world built just to ferry his horses.

SIMON: What's in-flight service like? Do you have any idea?

Mr. ROTH: It's the top hay that you could ever have wanted. Incredible.

SIMON: And DVDs of "Sea Biscuit" running.

Mr. ROTH: Exactly.

SIMON: The sheik's stables are named Darley and Godolphin.

Mr. ROTH: That's right. Those are two of the three founding sires of the thoroughbred breed. Every thoroughbred can trace their lineage back to three founding horses - the Darley, the Godolphin and the Byerley stallion. And those three horses have gone on to make every single thoroughbred.

So when Sheik Mohammed - he decided to name his two stables after two of the three of the founding sires, he was really claiming a stake to the entire thoroughbred line.

SIMON: Mr. Roth, you've obviously learned a lot about horses to be able to write about Sheik Mohammed and his many interests. Who looks good in the Derby to you?

Mr. ROTH: Well, you know, Sheik Mohammed has spent something like $100 million last year just buying up horses, and if he can't even manage to figure out a horse that can get in the Derby, I'm not sure I can pick him. But I look for great stories, and there are some great stories in this year's race.

I would really like Curlin, which Jess Jackson's horse - Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery. And it's the favorite right now. But even better is that Jess Jackson is really trying to clean up the industry as the way he sees it. And now, he's got this horse that has a potential to win that gains him huge traction. He's really a newcomer to this business, so that's the great one.

Great Hunter is an interesting story - the founder of Ditech(ph). It's one -it's his horse and this is horse that, I'm told about two weeks ago, it was unclear whether he owned the horse, whether this bank, Fifth Third, owned the horse because there was a legal dispute over the horse being used as collateral.

And then my favorite is Nobiz Like Showbiz.

SIMON: Ah, my dollar bill is on that horse. Yes.

Mr. ROTH: You like Nobiz.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ROTH: Nobiz is a great story. A 70-year-old woman owns this horse. Sheik Mohammed offered $17 million for this horse, she said no. This is one that she bred. Her husband was in Broadway and she named this horse after him. And if she wins, it will be an incredible story.

Here, you've got some of the richest people in America and in the world, who have spent so much money trying to win this race, and the 70-year-old woman has a good shot at it, and that's the one I'm really going to be watching.

SIMON: Daniel Roth, who profiles Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and one of the dominant figures in horseracing, for the premier issue of Conde Nast Portfolio. Mr. Roth, thanks so much.

Mr. ROTH: Thank you.

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