"I think the racing public like continuity," he said on Thursday, reflecting on a recent award as the most influential owner of the last 50 years, "they like to follow a set of colours like mine, to watch the sons and daughters of horses they remember. Being the breeder, planning the matings, is fascinating. But unless you just want to treat it as a hole in the ground, you have to run the finances. I am absolutely unbending in the need to take tough decisions."
It is a typically challenging, if slightly surprising, statement. For, 42 years after he succeeded his grandfather to become Aga Khan IV and spiritual head of 20 million Ismaeli Muslims, and 40 years since he became the unhappy heir of his father Aly Khan's 400-head bloodstock empire, 62-year-old Prince Karim could be excused if he was coasting. But on this week's evidence he is still hustling as much as those Islamic-named title contenders above.
This season, the produce of the 170 brood mares at the Aga Khan's five stud operation in France and Ireland once again lead the field with nine European Group One victories, and over £2 million in prize money to their name. The might of the Maktoums and Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin phenomenon may dominate the British and Irish owners' table but last week's £16m spending spree at the Kentucky Sales shows they still have to go shopping for talent.
Guess who Daylami was bought from and returns to for stud work? The Aga has an Economics degree from Harvard. He has much heavier duties outside racing. He is into heritage that goes to work. Yesterday, Gold Cup winner Enzeli was doing duty in those green, red epaulette silks in the Irish St Leger. Next Saturday, French 2,000 Guineas hero Sendawar will come to Ascot's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes to reinforce his claim as top European miler. A fortnight today, French Oaks winner Daryaba will go to the Arc de Triomphe with a good chance.
If stud farms are seed beds this is as thick a set of blooms as at anytime in a history that goes way back to 1921, when trainer George Lambton bought eight yearlings for just 24,250 guineas as the foundation of the old Aga Khan's legendary 13 championships and five Epsom Derby successes. When this Aga took over he made two rather bigger purchases, the breeding stock of first the Dupre and then the Boussac empires, and then settled down to try to make them produce the goods to pay the wages.
An Arc winner (Akiyda), five French and three English Derby winners (Shergar, Shahrastani and Kahyasi) have been proof of his method of developing families (female names start with the same letter) down the generations. A heavyweight book in his office traces Sendawar, Daylami and Daryaba's pedigrees back to mares foaled in 1921, 1919, and 1913 respectively. But ten years ago there were signs that too much support of his own stallions was losing the old families some speed. He switched his home stallion ratio from 70 per cent to 40 per cent and, without using American blood or super expensive sires (Priolo, Sendawar's sire stood at 3,000gns), the dynamite is back.
He had an hour to talk over breakfast on Thursday. At five to eight, he came in off the terrace which overlooks the Forest Du Lys with Paris but 40 kilometres to the south. His chateau at Aiglemont, just on the edge of the Chantilly training grounds, is part embassy, part office. We move from a stately salon through a long room packed high with folders and boxes to where the Spanish butler awaits with fruit bowls and croissants. It seems a long way from the green grass of Ireland where the horses first fed.
Yet the pride in this empire, which includes 120 horses in training in England, France and Ireland, is very direct. Prince Karim's frame may be bulkier now but the mind is still lean and the charm would coax a mule into a mine shaft. His is a life of both unbelievable privilege and extraordinary commitments. The educational and development work of the Aga Khan Foundation stretches out to Kenya, Canada, Uganda, India and the newly-emerging states of South East Asia. His own jet will take him to Geneva at lunchtime, Monaco on Friday, Ireland on Saturday. Over three continents he will deal with schools, office blocks, agricultural regeneration, yacht clubs and finally with racing matters.
He says he cannot give more than 10 per cent of his time to racing and that he was initially antagonistic to it, but there is no denying the force that pushes everyone from stud hand to secretary to aspire to excellence. His team speak devotedly of him but he can be a stubborn and litigious foe, witness his five-season stand-off from British racing over the 1989 Aliysa dope case, his sudden axeing of his Irish chief of staff last season, and his current threat to review trainer Luca Cumani's standing because of a second positive test for butazolydin.
"I can't say there are any real hard and fast rules about breeding," he says a shade overmodestly, "except that over 40 years there must have been 50.001 per cent of times when logic prevailed over luck." Then the conversation diverts to the wider world: of governments from Uganda to Mozambique to Turkistan with whom his foundation now works, of the two million Ismaelis who go through his education programme annually. The racing family pales into triviality like the trees in the early morning haze.
A beautiful and sometimes moving triviality just the same. An hour later Sendawar and Dariyaba stand resplendent in their boxes, a living symbol of one of the most beautiful and athletic species man and nature have yet devised.
That afternoon a lesser stablemate called Tarbazan stuck on doggedly to be second under a sunny Longchamp sky. Next day at Newbury a two-year-old filly called Karaliyfa showed promise of bigger times ahead. Neither is very tall but their trademark bay coats and strong, magnificently muscled frames are typical of the Aga's stock.
But there were other things to think about. That morning a thousand-strong congregation filled Holy Trinity Brompton to pay tribute to trainer Mikey Heaton-Ellis, who died last month of Motor Neurone disease but who gave courage to everyone he met. That afternoon at Newcastle hospital, friends and family of injured jump jockey Scott Taylor sat vigil while his battered brain struggled towards the light.
"Of course much of racing is futile," the Aga Khan had said. "But it has its redeeming features." The pursuit of excellence should always be among them. Next month that excellence could be in the silks of green and red.
Back to Timeline 1999