Declan Rix

Declan Rix recaps on Godolphin’s 26-year wait for Derby glory after Charlie Appleby’s Masar delivered Sheikh Mohammed Flat racing’s most coveted race.

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Among the many shared quotes on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s website, one struck a chord after Saturday’s Derby, “Time is on your side to produce and prosper so don’t stop until you seize the opportunity”.

The founder of Godolphin in 1992, now 68, could be forgiven for thinking time was running out to win the Derby in the famous blue silks, but Masar, trainer Charlie Appleby and jockey William Buick seized the opportunity and delivered Flat racing’s greatest race on the famous Epsom Downs for their long-devoted leader.

Sheikh Mohammed has been associated with other Derby winners - Lammtarra in 1995 and New Approach in 2008 - but one suspects Masar’s success in the blue of Dubai meant more. Why? Because the victory achieved everything in Godolphin’s vison and mission while embracing the organisation’s values.  

The Godolphin vison is, “To reflect the spirit of Dubai”. Their mission, “to be number one” and all this should be done through values like bravery, excellence, horsemanship, passion, respect and teamwork. With Masar’s one-and-a-half length victory, all this was achieved.

It was a deserved success for a man that has invested so heavily in the horse, his passion and the thoroughbred industry; not just in the UK, but worldwide. After Saturday’s Classic success, the leader of Dubai said, “horses are in my blood so I love horses and I love racing”.

This statement rings true given for over 40 years Sheikh Mohammed has had horses in training in the UK. As the years have passed, the investment has got more pronounced, seeing Godolphin operating as the racing wing while Darley has become the royal families breeding operation.

In Dubai and the UK, Saeed Bin Suroor and Charlie Appleby are private Godolphin trainers while in Australia James Cummings handles the vast majority of the training for the firm. Other handlers in the UK, Ireland and France train for Sheikh Mohammed while horses also compete in America under the banner.

In terms of Darley, they now operate in seven countries on four continents, seeing Sheikh Mohammed as one of the world’s biggest investors in the thoroughbred horse, maybe even the biggest. It shouldn’t be taken for granted the huge sums of money and the amount of people he has directly or indirectly employed – we are surely talking colossal numbers dating back to its inception.

Masar wins the 2018 Investec Derby
Masar leads the 2018 Investec Derby field under William Buick

While the case, from a sporting point of view, when you consider the wealth and the resources available, Godolphin for too long have underachieved in Europe, their mainstay. It’s taken the operation 26 years to reach Flat racing’s Holy Grail and their last Classic success came six years ago when Encke won the St Leger for disgraced trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni; a victory that now surely rings a touch hollow given he was one of the horses that later tested positive for an anabolic steroid, albeit not immediately after the race.

Al-Zarooni was banned from the sport in 2013, a ruling that opened the door for Charlie Appleby – Saturday’s Derby-winning trainer and for me, the man that should take most credit for the Blue Riband success, Sheikh Mohammed aside.

Appleby has worked his way up the ladder at Godolphin from travelling head lad, to stable head lad and previously assistant trainer - he’s been employed there for 20 years, and his part in this story shouldn’t be underplayed.

Slowly but surely, Appleby has got better and better. Year on year since taking over at Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket, his strike-rate has improved along with prize money earned and 2017 saw his best ever year on all fronts in the UK, finishing the season with an incredible +52.59 level-stakes profit and 84 winners.

Appleby has trained big winners on the grandest of stages too, during his short stint. In Outstrip and the recently retired Wuheida he has already produced two Breeders' Cup champions. With Hawkbill he won the Eclipse Stakes, has had numerous Royal Ascot successes and plenty good days Down Under in Australia.

Some will say with the expensive blue bloods that he trains and the facilities at his disposal, this celebration of (a first) Classic victory should be the norm for the likes of Appleby. This misconception has been borne out of Aidan O’Brien’s astonishing success in the modern era, but I’m a big believer in thinking training is not “easy” - many trainers get expensive horses with top pedigrees, but not all produce the results. The training of race horses is an art and it’s an art – now given the ammunition – Charlie Appleby is starting to get on top of.

Ammunition is obviously important, there can be no getting away from this variable, so a penny for Godolphin’s longest-serving trainer Saeed bin Suroor’s thoughts who trained the dam of Masar, Khawlah, to win three races including a Group 2 and a Group 3 in 2011.

Bin Suroor also trained Khawlah’s half-brother Winter House to a maiden success, but was overlooked the Derby-winning son of New Approach in the dispersal of juveniles last season by then Godolphin racing manager John Ferguson.

Ferguson’s shock departure in 2017 from the operation after 25 years saw the Boys in Blue in the headlines for the wrong reasons again, three years after another long-term employee Simon Crisford also quit as racing manager.

The relationship between Ferguson and Bin Suroor – and so Godolphin - became “untenable” last season after the trainer publicly criticised the Godolphin chief executive, sighting the poor crop of two-year-olds he received from Ferguson as the main reason for not having a juvenile runner until July.

It’s also interesting to note, that Charlie Appleby nearly pulled off the Oaks and Derby double after his Wild Illusion finished runner in the Classic on Friday. Wild Illusion’s dam Rumh was another horse trained by Bin Suroor whose progeny didn’t come his way. Soliloquy, another Appleby Classic contender was out of Dysphonia, who Bin Suroor handled, and another to add to the list.

Looking at the statistics of Charlie Appleby having his best season ever in 2017 – in terms of number of runners and number of winners with his strike-rate, total earnings and level-stakes profit improving, maybe there is truth in Bin Suroor’s grievances.

Whatever happened between Ferguson and Bin Suroor, I have no knowledge of, but their relationship was clearly frosty. Ironically, a year on from the racing world looking at a Godolphin in turmoil again they have won the one race they so dearly sought and it was the decisions of a man, John Ferguson, now gone from the helm, that played a major role, as did the early stud that produced Masar as a young horse.

The obvious ploy to send last season’s better juveniles to Appleby, did Ferguson just feel Appleby was the man to get the job done or does Bin Suroor’s poor crop of 2017 two-year-olds suggest this issue runs deeper? Whatever your thoughts and the factual going-ons, Godolphin are now Derby winners.

Ferguson and Sheikh Mohammed must also get praise for the capture of Godolphin stable jockeys William Buick and James Doyle back in 2014. Buick obviously delivered on the biggest stage of all aboard Masar with a thoroughly straight-forward and confident ride.

The Norwegian-born jockey is a no-nonsense type, he keeps things simple and generally puts his mounts into the races early. For my money as a punter, those are traits I look for and it suggests Buick is tactically aware. Doyle on the other hand, is criminally underutilised.

Congratulations to all at Godolphin for seizing the opportunity, I’ve no doubt this Derby success and the long path taken to get there will give many people in a global operation much satisfaction. Saturday was their day. 


Last week, Haydock over-watered their course on the run up to their Family Day with the Forces ft the Armstrong Group Temple Stakes meeting (May 25th-26th) and on Saturday, Doncaster were the latest track to get it wrong in what continues to be a worrying trend for British racing.

Having raced on quick ground on Friday evening, that was described as ‘good to firm, firm in places’, the ground was immediately changed to ‘soft’ after their first race on Saturday. OK, there was 12mm of rain reported pre-racing, but the over-watering that occurred at the track from Monday to Wednesday clearly played its part.

Sadly, the information on the watering wasn’t accurate either, the course reporting “A total of 10mm to 15mm of water has been applied to the whole course from Monday to Wednesday”. Was it 10mm? Was it 15mm? No one knows, and no one knows how it was applied either? Was it evenly distributed over the course of the three days?

On a more positive note however, great praise is deserving of Epsom Clerk of the Course Andrew Cooper who kept the public in the know with going stick readings, rail amendments and weather updates on Twitter and via the BHA website.

Declan Rix
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