It was never my single-minded intention to find myself at Al Quoz Stables, headquarters of the world’s largest and most prestigious stable, Godolphin. Truth be told, it’s just been a silly dream. One that cruelly tantalised me every time I’d wait at the nearby Dubai Bowling Center traffic signal. And to know this silly dream had quite magically manifested into reality, almost overnight, had me goose-bumped. I can assure you at that moment goose-bumped felt like a valid term to explain the state of my mind and body.
Founded by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Godolphin is an international organisation with operations in Australia, USA and Europe as well. Al Quoz Stables is home to trainer Saeed Bin Surour’s 30 priceless thoroughbreds that travel from Saeed’s yard, Godolphin Stables in Newmarket, UK, to race in the Dubai World Cup Carnival.
As I drove past the first of two security barriers towards the all-steel-and-chrome office, I realised I was about to get a glimpse of a world that merely a handful had seen until now. To meet people who have played their part in Godolphin’s meteoric rise to the top of the horse racing world.
From Brian Powell, assistant trainer, who thinks horses are like people; Luke Thompson, the farrier to whom horses are second nature; Riccardo Corona, the senior barn manager for whom working with horses was a natural progression; to Emer Fallon, the racing secretary who’s been riding since she was five, Friday gets an exclusive peek into Godolphin’s world.
By the way, the 2017 edition of Dubai World Cup Carnival concludes tomorrow. The total prize money for the day’s racing is a whopping US$30 million.
The assistant trainer: Brian Powell
An Englishman with a flash of grey hair, Brian works alongside Godolphin’s trainer Saeed Bin Surour. The two are responsible for the horses’ training schedules and the management of Al Quoz Stables. Having worked in Godolphin’s UK stables for many years, Brian is now based full-time in Dubai.
Have you always worked with horses?
I’ve been riding horses since I was five years old as I lived in the countryside and we were surrounded by stables. Nobody else in my family has ever been involved in horse racing, so they don’t understand where this passion comes from, but I have never imagined doing anything else. In fact, my father wanted me to take up a ‘proper’ job when I finished school so I joined the Ministry of Agriculture, but nine months later my father realised that it wasn’t for me, and allowed me to work with horses. Initially, I wanted to be a jockey, but that’s not where my skills were best placed, so I focused on getting into the management aspect of it.
When did you start at Godolphin?
Back in 1995, I was working with some of the most well-known names in the horse racing industry. One of them, John Gosden, whom I was assistant trainer for, told me of an opening for head lad at Godolphin. At the time, Godolphin was only a couple of years old, but John was sure that Godolphin was going to go places as it had Shaikh Mohammad as its founder and driving force. I took up the offer and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since you’ve worked so closely with thoroughbreds, tell us more about them.
The thoroughbred is a horse breed best known for its use in horse racing. All modern thoroughbreds can trace their pedigrees to three stallions originally imported into England in the 17th and 18th centuries – one of which gives Godolphin its name. They are known for their agility and speed, but it is important to understand the horse’s nature.
Horses are just like people: Some are easy to understand, some need praise all the time, some have to be mollycoddled. After years of experience, one is able to distinguish their characteristics and know how to get the best out of them. Just like any other pet, horses like to be appreciated. Their care and welfare is our first priority.
How many horses do you have here in Al Quoz Stables and across the world?
Presently, we have about 30 horses that have been brought here from Saeed’s yard, Godolphin Stables in Newmarket, UK, to race in the Dubai World Cup Carnival. In the past, we used to fly in all the horses from the UK to Dubai, so they could spend the winter here and enjoy the moderate climate. Overall, we have 3,000 horses. Maximising the potential of every horse is a team effort.
What does your typical day look like?
We start at 5am, every day. First thing in the morning, we check the horses to see how they have managed through the night. If we have any concerns, then we discuss them with Saeed. Then when the horses come out of their boxes at 6.30am, for their early-morning walk, Saeed and I take a closer look at each one of them again. Each horse has its own exercise schedule, which changes every day and is also determined by their own race calendar – that really determines what our focus is, and what the priorities are each day. Once the Carnival is over, some of the horses will remain here in Dubai and are given a rest from the rigours of training, and the others are flown back to the UK to take part in the racing season there.
How old is a horse when it comes to you?
We normally start working with a horse when it is a year old. That’s when we are able to really start to understand its strengths and capabilities. After we break them in and see them train, Shaikh Mohammad and Saeed decide the best way forward for each horse.
At what age do horses start racing?
Horses that are going into flat racing will usually start when they are two years old and they tend to peak when they are three or four, after which the best ones are often retired to a stud farm for breeding. Other horses race until they are nine or 10. Just like Formula One or any other major sport, horse racing too has a well-defined circuit. So horses travel across the world to take part at events. There is an event calendar for every age – it starts at two and goes on from there, depending on the kind of horse and what’s best for them.
Is it difficult to train a horse?
This is my passion, so I feel very lucky to be given this opportunity by Shaikh Mohammad and Saeed. Training horses requires patience, experience and intuition. They are colour-blind and judge things by shapes. Some tend to get distracted easily, some are more curious than others – each one is unique. They are also very smart and if a horse is not treated in the right way, it will not forget it, so to get the best out of them it’s all about working with them to maximise their potential.
What are the biggest challenges when you travel with horses?
Getting them to eat and drink, especially on a long flight. In the past they would sometimes get anxious during take-offs and landings as they didn’t understand what was going on, but on the whole, they travel really well. More so now because they start travelling when they are babies. They then need a couple of days to recover from it all and get to their usual selves. Every effort is taken to ensure they are OK and the planes they travel on are like flying luxury hotels.
One famous trainer once said, ‘I see a bit of myself in every horse I work with’. Is that true for you as well?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I feel horses are like children, every one of them requires a unique way of being nurtured to maximise their potential. That understanding comes with years of experience and knowledge.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
You have to be dedicated to what you do. All those who are in this profession are in it because they love it and it’s their passion. It’s a 24x7 commitment. Our lives revolve around horses and their needs come first. It can be tough on the families, but it’s about managing that balance.
The farrier: Luke Thompson
The work of a farrier is a rural craft that is centuries old. ‘I look after a horse’s hooves and place shoes on them,’ explains Briton Luke. Since each horse is unique, so are its shoes and the hoof care required and as a farrier, Luke is responsible for every horse’s day-to-day hoof care, checking for any slight anomalies, trimming and balancing their feet, and fitting shoes for training and for racing. His job might come across as a mix of what a blacksmith and a veterinarian do – with years of specialised training and on-the job learning.
What do you do?
To be able to take good care of a horse’s feet, we need to assess their whole body. Our goal is to try to keep the body in balance so that they can compete at the highest level naturally. For that we watch them walk, jog and assess their action and conformation, and design their shoes accordingly. Since each horse is different, we work closely with the trainer of every horse, which in our case is Saeed, to better understand the needs of the horse, the shoes they want and how they want it to be.
That I feel is the key skill of a farrier – the way we assess each horse’s needs. Since horses can’t tell us what they want, it is our job to understand what they need and that is the most important aspect of our job and our biggest challenge.
How often do you change their shoes?
On an average, we change the horse’s shoes or race plate every 21 to 28 days. However, it also depends on the horse’s racing schedule and the surface that horse will be racing on. So if the surface is grass or dirt then the horse will be fitted with shoes suitable for that specific surface. The horse’s comfort is of prime importance, so we try not to change things too much.
It is almost like a human being’s needs – shoes to match the purpose.
True. So when we re-shoe a horse, we look at the wear and tear on the old one. It helps us identify injuries as well.
Human beings take a while to get used to new shoes. Is it the same with horses?
I like to put their racing shoes on a week to 10 days before the event. This gives them time to get used to the new fitting. Because you don’t want them to be thinking of their shoes while racing, you want them to be totally comfortable and focus on the race.
It is clear that horses come first in your life as well. How does your family take this?
It’s a real privilege and joy to work for a company like Godolphin. My wife and kids understand that. It’s not always easy balancing work and family life but I think as a family we strike the right balance.
Is this something that you’ve always wanted to do?
I’ve had ponies at home since I was a child and I’ve always wanted to work with horses, in whatever capacity I could. I remember when I was young, I would help a farrier after school. As I held the horse for him, I used to be fascinated by what he did and the unique relationship he had with the horse. When I left school, I straightaway opted for apprenticeship.
Is it more about instincts and less about technology?
I’d like to think I am able to understand horses and their unique characters and capabilities. They are like children, each one different, some cheeky, some timid and my instincts and experience help me make out which one is which. I believe it is a true gift to be able to understand and work harmoniously with these extremely strong animals. If they don’t want us in their space, there’s no way you can change that.
Technology does of course play an important role and while some might say that machine-made shoes are more precise than handmade ones and that it takes less time to prepare the shoes, every horse is different and you can’t easily replicate something that’s tailored by hand and bespoke for that horse. Also, we now glue the shoes instead of nailing them on. This technological advancement has improved the performance of several horses who earlier had poor feet and went on to be multiple winners at various prestigious events.
Can one learn to be a farrier in a school, or is it purely hands-on?
It can be taught in colleges and as part of an approved apprenticeship but most farriers I know have grown up with horses and it’s second nature. School training cannot teach you how to read a horse’s body language, only years of experience, observation and working closely with them does.
Would you recommend this job to a youngster?
It is a very demanding job, with a lot of challenges, but very rewarding. My nephew is training to be a farrier, so it’s in the family. It is a craft, a skill to learn but it is something that you have to be passionate about as it involves so much. At this high level of sport where so much is at stake, it is important to understand every minute complexity so that the horse is able to deliver its best.
Has a horse ever surprised you with his capabilities?
In my 25 years it’s happened quite a few times when horses you did not expect to do well amaze you with their performance. In spite of what I know, I’ve been surprised.
Do you have favourites?
There is one rule that I’ve made in life. Every horse will get the same care, whether they are a champion or not.
Can a person who has never been around horses be a farrier?
There are two ways of looking at it. When I was working in Hong Kong, I was responsible for training farriers, some of whom had never been around horses. So it’s possible. But where possible I’d recommend that any potential farrier start by spending time understanding these powerful horses before they opt for this career. If you’re passionate about it, anything is achievable.
The racing secretary: Emer Fallon
It’s a misconception that there are few women in the sport – Emer notes Princess Haya’s role in inspiring others to join the field.
Emer’s job requires her to wear many hats, including a pretty one for the big race day. From liaising with the bases in other parts of the world, trainers, staff and the yard to booking jockeys, dealing with industry governing bodies to the logistics of moving horses, to hospitality and events, the Irish horse lover has juggled many tasks in her seven years at the stable.
Have you always worked with horses?
I grew up in Ireland and started riding when I was five. My father and grandfather have always been passionate about horses so I feel it is something that I’ve inherited. I always wanted to work with horses, whether it was the administrative aspect of it or anything that was more hands-on, I always knew horses were going to be my career. I’m glad I have the hands-on experience as it gave me the edge when I decided to move to an office-based role as I can understand the nature of the business and its challenges. I have a BSc in Equine Science from the University of Limerick in Ireland.
Do you think you are living your dream life?
As a young girl and a racing addict, I remember watching Saeed and Shaikh Mohammad on the television being interviewed at big race meetings such as Royal Ascot. Now, I cannot believe that I am working for the same organisation, so in a way, yes, I think I am living my dream life. And the fact I have been able to make a career out of my passion makes me very happy. The glamour aspect is actually a very small part of the job.
Are there any other dreams you’d like to fulfil?
One thing I know for sure is that horses will always remain my passion, if not my career. It is such a fast-paced environment so the adrenaline and the excitement that comes with it is quite addictive. And the fact that the team we have is so skilled and enthusiastic about what they do makes the job even more satisfying. So I know I would miss it if I decided to change career path.
Does it bother you that the jockey and the trainer get all the spotlight after a win?
While it is true that jockeys are the ones who, along with the trainer and the owner, take the podium and are more recognisable by the fans and the media, one also needs to have a lot of respect for what a jockey does. They are highly skilled athletes who take a risk every time they go out to ride in a race, not to mention all the responsibility that is placed on them after we have done all the hard work at home. So no, I have to say that doesn’t bother me at all, I only have admiration for them.
What do you think of the work pressure, does it change gears when the racing season starts?
The racing season in the UAE is quite short – from October to March. Because of the summer temperatures it is not possible to train horses here all year round. But it still requires a lot of planning and there are only a few months of the year when it is relatively quiet work-wise. We seem to be only wrapping up from one season before we are winding up for the next one!
Are there few women in the field?
It is a perception in horseracing, mainly because we see a lot of male jockeys and trainers at the forefront but it’s far more balanced behind the scenes – across all the roles. Also, there are lots of different disciplines in equine sports – flat racing is only one of them. For instance in the UAE, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain, wife of Shaikh Mohammad and Chairman of the Board at the Dubai International Humanitarian City, has a clear passion for equine sports and was a very successful showjumper herself. She is an active speaker at global conferences since she was a two-term president of International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI). She is an inspiration to other women who are beginning to look at an equestrian career option.
The senior barn manager: Riccardo Corona
This Italian’s job makes him the epicentre of all that happens in a barn.
From overseeing the various aspects of horse care, including exercise schedules, vet visits, and the diet of the horses, to managing the barn staff and logistics. Riccardo, who has been in the company for 14 years, ensures it all happens smoothly.
Tell us more about horses.
Horses, like kids, find new environments a bit intimidating. So the big lights, crowds and the noise at a horse racing arena like Meydan’s can be quite daunting for a horse and could make them anxious before the big race. So we take them to the arena a few times beforehand and ensure that they are fully comfortable and happy in the surroundings and are not distracted or concerned by what is happening around them.
Have you come across a horse that is particularly difficult?
As every horse is different, the challenge they offer is unique too. What can make a difference is the age at which the horse has come to us. Those that are born in our stables are like an open book, no surprises, but if a horse comes to us when he is much older, then it can be difficult to change its habits and make him follow instructions. There are no bad horses, just bad habits.
Have horses been a vital part of your life?
I was born and raised in a stud farm south of Rome. Both my parents worked on the farm. While my father was a stud groom, my mother was responsible for all the newborns. So working with horses was kind of a natural progression.
That’s like many others here, who have been around horses most of their lives.
To us horses are a passion, if we were not working with them, we would be riding them as a hobby. The long hours, the intensive work schedules – irrespective of rain, snow or sunshine – can be quite demanding, but I guess it is like that for any athlete. When you’ve grown up in the environment, it is easier to accept its challenges and demands.
So passion scores over academics for you?
It is a job that one learns with experience, not through a textbook. A book can teach you about the anatomy of a horse, but when you come face to face with an animal, then it is your experience that counts.
This sounds extremely busy. Where does the family fit into this equation?
I am lucky. My wife is a veterinarian so she understands what my job entails and the long hours this kind of job comes with. My kids love horses too. They ride ponies and follow horse racing, so they too are caught by the passion and excitement of it all.
Have you had a situation that you feel has been very challenging?
Not really. I feel like a little kid who loves football and gets a chance to play with his favourite team. It is dream come true for me, a man who comes from a small farm. What an unbelievable journey.
How do horses travel long distance?
The way horses are moved around the world has changed dramatically over the years. Godolphin was one of the pioneers as our horses started travelling extensively from the early 1990s. They are loaded in their horsebox, go to the airport, and are then transferred into a much larger crate, not that different from their natural environment. They are provided with all the care they need, lots of food and water. They are accompanied throughout the flight by flying grooms. Now the horses are so used to travelling from an early age they really don’t get anxious. They do get slightly tired but after a couple of days’ rest, they are fine. They let you know when they are OK again.
Your favourite memory?
Prince Bishop winning the World Cup in 2015. He is special for many reasons. When he won the race, he was eight years old, which in the racing world makes him quite old. He was not the kind who would lead from the very beginning as he would take time to warm up, but then he would always finish strong. He was a testimony to all of Shaikh Mohammad and Saeed’s hard work, faith and patience.
Spas, swimming and workouts: A day in the life of a racehorse
Riccardo Corona explains...
It is divided into two sessions. The morning one starts at 5am. First thing, I speak with the night watchmen to find out if the horses ate their food, drank their water and everything was OK during the night. Then we check the horses’ well-being, especially their legs. Racehorses are like kids with a sugar rush. They are trained to be extremely alert so any loud noise can make them react. So even though they wear protective bandages, we check every horse thoroughly to ensure they have not hurt themselves during the night. We also check their temperature to ensure they don’t have any dormant illness. We then ensure the horses follow the exercise routine tailor-made for each horse by Saeed Bin Surour. We have a 75m swimming pool, which the horses use every day. It helps them loosen up, strengthens their legs and gets them fit. At around 6-6.30am, the riders come in, they are briefed by Saeed on the exercise routine for the day and then they take a group of horses that belong to the same category for their rounds. It gives us another chance to assess the horse. Before they go for their rounds, we take them through the gates, it’s kind of a rehearsal for the big race night. The second set goes around 8.15am. The general exercise routine around the tracks takes about 45 minutes. Then the horses are checked again to ensure they’ve not hurt themselves during exercise. Around 10am, the watchmen take over again, feeding them their breakfast. The second session starts around 3.15-3.30pm when the horses go through a similar routine. They are fed again around 5.30pm. That is a standard routine. But when the racing season is on, it’s slightly more intensive.
DID YOU KNOW?
■ Godolphin was established in 1992 by Shaikh Mohammad. The stable takes its name from Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation stallions (the other two were the Byerley Turk and the Darley Arabian) that came from Arabia to Europe in the 1700s – from which all thoroughbred racehorses descend. The Godolphin Arabian was known as the ‘father of the turf’ and sired many Classic winners.
■ Team Godolphin employs 1,500 staff and spans four continents – from its home in Dubai to Ireland, the UK and France in Europe, Australia and the USA. In Dubai, the organisation has two operations – Al Quoz Stables and Godolphin Marmoom Stables.
■ Al Quoz Stables is the Dubai home for Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Surour’s (above) horses. It serves as a base for those racing in the Dubai World Cup Carnival at nearby Meydan, home to the world’s richest race – the Dubai World Cup. The yard’s state-of-the-art facilities include an equine swimming pool, a seawalker (a circular training pool) and spa and a nine-furlong all-weather training track.
■ Godolphin Marmoom Stables is the winter base of Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby and his team. Horses in residence here are mainly prepared for the Dubai World Cup Carnival, which takes place at Meydan Racecourse between January and March each year.
■ Darley Stallions is Shaikh Mohammad’s global stallion operation, which stands stallions in six countries and produces racehorses for Godolphin. Headquartered at Dalham Hall Stud, near Newmarket, England, the current line-up of 14 thoroughbred stallions is headed by Dubawi, son of the famous Dubai Millennium. The operation also includes Kildangan Stud in County Kildare, Ireland, which is home to 15 stallions, including Exceed And Excel, the world’s leading sire of two-year-olds.
■ Further afield, Darley stands stallions at Jonabell Farm, in Kentucky, USA and another breeding stud in Japan. Darley Australia is spread over several properties and stands a roster of 24 stallions, including Australian sire Lonhro.
■ Over the years, Godolphin has bred several champions, including Dubai Millennium, who won the Dubai World Cup in 2000. Shaikh Mohammad considers him to be the best horse ever prepared by Godolphin.
■ Today, Team Godolphin has 4,500 horses across its racing and breeding operations. After their careers, the most successful horses retire to stud, which is the industry term for breeding. Other horses work in eventing and polo.