Kevin Blake

    With Godolphin chief executive John Ferguson quitting his role, Kevin takes a closer look at the ever-changing landscape of the powerhouse racing operation over the last decade, and the decisions that failed to see The Boys In Blue return to past glories.
  • Monday 12 June 2017
  • Blog

The origins of the Godolphin turmoil

For the last week, Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation has been the talk of the racing world. It began with two separate articles in the Racing Post either side of the Derby in which long-serving Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Suroor was quoted making uncharacteristically aggressive criticisms of the way Godolphin was being managed by Chief Executive John Ferguson.

The more recent article seemed a remarkable outburst at the time, but it now seems as though it was a very calculated move that achieved what may well have been its objective less than 48 hours later when Ferguson dramatically resigned his position, bringing an end over 25 years of service to Sheikh Mohammed.

While much of the analysis of the Godolphin situation has focused on more recent events and the potential consequences, the origins of what occurred last week can perhaps be traced back much further than one might imagine.

While Sheikh Mohammed’s involvement in racing as an owner can be traced back to the 1970s, he founded Godolphin in the early 1990s as a highly-selective international racing stable that sought to compete in the best races in the world.

With Godolphin’s creation coinciding with the lull in Coolmore’s impact on the racecourse between the latter years of Vincent O’Brien’s training career and the start of Aidan O’Brien’s move to Ballydoyle, they quickly became major players in the world of racing, securing over 100 Group/Grade 1 wins around the world in their first decade of existence.

As Aidan O’Brien’s success on the international stage continued to grow, Godolphin were his main opposition and for a number of years, the competition between them lit up the international racing scene, arguably culminating in the epic Irish Champion Stakes battle between Fantastic Light and Galileo in 2001.

While Godolphin continued to be major international players in the years that followed that never-to-be-forgotten contest, when one looks back at the list of Godolphin successes while the size of the operation continued to grow, victories in the highest-profile Group 1 races in Europe became much more infrequent from 2008 onwards.

Of course, there could be all manner of reasons why this is the case, but one possible contributor stands out as being a crucial decision in the history of Godolphin, a bloodstock decision.

It was in September 2005 that Sheikh Mohammed took the decision to no longer buy progeny of Coolmore stallions at the yearling sales. It was a huge decision that had the potential to hurt both sides, but the passage of time has shown that the timing of it couldn’t have been worse for Godolphin.

While it saw them miss out on the last few crops of Sadler’s Wells as well as the progeny of Montjeu, most significantly it was the very next year after their decision that Galileo began his emergence into becoming arguably the most dominant stallion in the history of the thoroughbred breed.

While the Darley/Godolphin operations have gone on to establish numerous stallions of note around the world since then, headlined by Dubawi and Shamardal, the ground they lost to Coolmore in the years following the start of the infamous boycott was perhaps the spark that ignited the fuse that led to even greater negative ramifications in the years that followed.

With major Group 1 wins becoming more infrequent for Godolphin, it was inevitable that Sheikh Mohammed’s desire to get back on level terms with Coolmore would result in changes being made. The first major change that was made was to bring in Mahmood Al Zarooni as a second Godolphin trainer in 2010.

While he provided Godolphin with big-race wins courtesy of Blue Bunting and Rewilding amongst others, it wasn’t enough, and the changes kept coming. In March 2012, Mickael Barzalona and Silvestre de Sousa were signed up to share Godolphin’s riding duties with Frankie Dettori, who had been their retained rider for 17 years. That decision created so many issues that Dettori walked away from Godolphin the following October.

As disruptive as that was, by far the worst was still to come, as on April 22nd 2013, it emerged that multiple horses in the care of Mahmood Al Zarooni had tested positive for anabolic steroids. Just three days later, he was warned off for eight years. Perhaps as a result of that case, long-serving racing manager Simon Crisford vacated his role with Godolphin in February 2014.

In the weeks after Crisford’s announcement, Kieren Fallon was brought into the Godolphin fold for what would be a brief stint as a retained rider. The jockey-go-round continued the following November when it was revealed that James Doyle and William Buick had been signed up as retained riders for Godolphin, with Silvestre de Sousa’s contract not being renewed and Mickael Barzalona returning to France.

It was in December 2015 that it was announced that the racing/breeding arms of Darley/Godolphin were to merge and that John Ferguson would take on the role as Chief Executive of the organisation. One of the main objectives he was given was to streamline the operation which had reportedly grown to over 4,500 horses between racing and breeding stock around the world, a process which started last year with hundreds of Godolphin-owned horses being offered at bloodstock sales around the world.

As well as all the personnel changes, there have been multiple alterations to various racing policies in the last decade too. They have sent yearlings to “outside” trainers in both Britain and Ireland in fluctuating amounts and the policy on whether to leave horses that have been acquired whilst in training with their existing trainer or move them to Godolphin trainers has also changed on numerous occasions. 

Thus, the most recent changes are only the latest in a series of personnel and policy upheavals that have occurred in the last eight years or so as Sheikh Mohammed has sought to find a winning formula to return Godolphin to the glory days of the late 90s and early noughties.

However, through all these changes and despite the success of their breeding operation in producing world-class stallions, Godolphin continue to underachieve at the very highest level of racing, with top-class Group 1 victories being a rarity for them in recent years.

The solution to this for Godolphin is unlikely to be simple, but one suspects that stability in personnel and policy would be a sensible primary objective as they seek to return to racing’s top table.

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