By: Andrew Longmore from
THE SUNDAY TIMES 5.10.03
Aiglemont is bathed in sunshine, although heavy overnight rain has brought a reminder: the Arc encourages October's capricious nature.
The hopes of many a high class colt have been submerged by late deluges that turn the mile and four furlongs of French racing's most famous contours into a survival course. It is just one of the reasons why the Aga Khan, the owner-breeder of race favourite Dalakhani, will travel to Longchamp today with nerves unusually taut. "It is a race which concerns me," he says. "It's been a difficult race, is a difficult race. It comes late in the season, often on very heavy going. Some of the best horses of the year are no longer in form. It's a race where you see a number of unexpected winners over time. I'm not knocking the race, far from it, but if it were two weeks earlier, it would be a different race." But possibly not the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Just in case he has strayed too far into the realms of the businessman, he adds: "Though sometimes we have dodged the Arc, my father and grandfather, to keep a horse for another climax, it is a wonderful race … and, generally speaking, the policy of the family has been to run with the chance." He wants you to know that he has a sportsman's heart befitting a former Iranian Olympic skier.
We talk in an office at the Aga's stud on the outskirts of Chantilly to the north of Paris, within sight of the barn from which France's dark grey defender will travel on Sunday and beneath an imposing array of thoroughbred portraiture: Akiyda, who won the Aga's first Arc in 1982, Top Ville, the great blushing groom. The Arc is a few days away and a gruelling two- week trip to eEast Africa has relegated the race to the base-camp of the in-tray. A man of prodigious stamina, the Aga had arrived back in Paris from Nairobi the previous evening at 10.30 and worked until almost dawn on the mountain of paperwork built up in his absence. Horses have a time and a place in his life.
"It's difficult to keep in touch with the breeding side when I'm travelling," he says, "I have good people who bring me up to speed when I get back, and it's a pleasure, but it's also work to catch up with. If I'm in East Africa, it's not as if things in Afghanistan have stopped, or Tajikistan. If I'm in a given area of the world, keeping abreast of my institutional work (as leader of a world wide community of 15m Nizari Ismaili Muslims) is quite enough. It tends to be the breeding that falls of the edge of the table."
But it will be the breeding, and by extension, the racing that come into focus at 4.30pm French time today. It has been a glorious season for the Aga, with Alamshar's victory in the King George at Ascot and the imperious progress of Dalakhani and his Belgian jockey, Christophe Soumillon, 21, through the French Derby and into the nation's imagination. Dalakhani's casual brilliance, allied to Soumillon's exuberance, has brought the Aga's three-year old an unusually broad following. Though he refuses to stray beyond the boundaries of the rigorous financial discipline that has marked his stewardship of the family firm, the Aga understands the genuine fervour that his dark grey son of Darshaan has inspired. Maybe, in quiet moments he shares some of it himself.
"Well, he's done everything asked of him," he says. "!In France, he's never been beaten. He's run on every ground. He was an excellent two-year old and he's an excellent three-year old. He's a very complete horse, a very elegant horse and he's also very calm. These are qualities I identify with and the racing public identifies with, too."
What brought particular praise from the racing community was the Aaga's decision earlier in the season to match his two best horses, Alamshar, trained in Ireland by John Oxx, and Dalakhani, trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre at Chantilly, against each other in the Irish derby. The race exposed Soumillon's inexperience, ended Dalakhani's aura of invincibility and must have stretched the owner's phlegmatic temperament to the limit. Racing was the beneficiary, however, and Alamshar's subsequent demolition of nine Group One winners in the Kking Ggeorge put the French champion's defeat into sharp relief. "I did not say at the time that I thought Alamshar would not be an autumn horse, whereas Dalakhani might be," the Aga says. "I'm extremely fortunate to have two very good horses in the same year. Often if you have two like that, they will avoid each other until the Aarc, but the careers of these happened to come together at the Iirish Derby. In exceptional circumstances, you just have to work out what is the right thing to do." At the time he inherited duties of the family's breeding operation in 1960, the Aga khan was 23 years old, and only just absorbing the spiritual and leadership responsibilities thrust upon him by the death of his grandfather, the third Aga Khan, three years before. The breeding business was run by his own father, Prince Aly Khan, who became the first owner in Bbritish turf history to win more than £100,000 in one season when horses of the calibre of petite Etoile, Taboun, Ginetta and Fiorentina swept all before them. The following year, Prince Aly was killed in a car accident in Paris. And his son was left to care for 60 brood-mares and a few stallions he had no knowledge of and precious little interest in. "The question was whether it was a good idea to try to continue an operation I knew nothing about and wouldn't have the time to follow," he recalls. "I waited for six months, tried to answer all the tough questions and decided, with great prudence, that I would try." Another vintage season seemed to point the way to the future, although success on the racetrack masked the true legacy of a business stripped of a layer of high-class bloodstock by the demands of death duties on two estates. It is against this turbulent background- and the more recent emergence of the commercial breeding powerhouses of Godolphin and Coolmore - that the spectacular success of Shergar and Shahrastani and, over the past three seasons, Sinndar, Alamshar and Dalakhani has to be judged. Not since the purchase of the Boussac and Ddupre studs in the mid-1970s has the Aga Khan delved into the transfer market for new stock. ("If I had a good opportunity I would do the same again," he says.) The rest has been a tribute to the rigid discipline of a Harvard-trained mind. "Emotions do take over, of course," he says, "if you didn't feel emotional about a great horse, and a great victory, I don't think you would go racing. But this is not an activity, at least in my eyes, where you can let emotions guide you. We are a traditional breeding operation and at the size we are (175 broodmares, five stallions and 200 horses in training) we have to have a solid enterprise. If you become emotional about individual horses, you can't take tough decisions."
Does that mean he is tough? "I don't know. I have a very good team," he says. "They don't need me to be here all the time." What frustrates him is lack of information, races that tell you nothing, decisions which, in his opinion, have no logic. There is a thread here. Communications is primary. Francois Mathet, the trainer he chose to replace Alec head in the 1960s spoke and wrote beautiful French. Yves Saint-Martin, the jockey he admires above all others, could translate feel into language. "Christophe (Soumillon), besides being an excellent horseman, is a very articulate commentator, and so is Alain (de Royer-Dupre). That's important when you are trying to get as much information as you can about the breeding." Questions about the chaotic state of English racing elicite only the half-smile of the born diplomat. The Aga khan's relationship with the Jockey Club has never fully recovered from the events at the 1989 Oaks, after which his winner, Aliysa, was disqualified for a positive dope test. The Aga temporarily withdrew all his horses from England, and, , years later, when two more of his horses tested positive, removed his string overnight from Luca Cumani's yard at Newmarket.
About 20 horses remain with Sir Michael Stoute, but Oxx and de Royer-Dupre are the Aga's chief trainers. "The question in our operation is whether we can support horses in training with three or four different trainers, he says, "That is complicated. The basic question is how many people in racing can survive economically every year. People want to be involved in a well-run sport. In England I wish I knew."
The Aga Khan is 65, far off retirement. Pricess Zahra, the eldest of his four children, is the only one to have taken an interest in the business and, sooner or later, some tough decisions will have to be taken about the future. Victory for Dalakhani this afternoon would provide a timely reminder of the sport's emotional rewards.