O'Brien out to rule World as Qataris flex their muscles
The Aidan O'Brien-trained Ruler Of The World will bid to justify favouritism in tomorrow night's $10m Dubai World Cup after a dizzy 24-hour period in which Qatar's ruling family has solidified its growing Irish interests.
Victory for the 2013 Epsom Derby hero in the world's most valuable race would constitute an unlikely culmination to the evolution of Coolmore's complex relationship with Sheikh Mohammed, one that has taken an unexpected turn this week.
The Al Thani clan from Qatar has emerged as a burgeoning superpower in the world of Flat racing, so Sheikh bin Hamad Joaan Al Thani's acquisition of a 50pc share in Ruler Of The World is a merger of some significance.
Joseph O'Brien is to retain the ride on the four-year-old, with Al Thani's retained rider Frankie Dettori his nominated deputy. That's a mark of how far the 20-year-old has come.
A raft of multi-million euro acquisitions by Sheikh Joaan include last year's dazzling Prix de l'Arc victor Treve. The extent of his ambition, along with that of Sheikh Suhaim and Sheikh Fahad, has been made clear, not least by the royals' purchase of a 100-acre farm in Croom last year. It'd be premature to suggest a definitive shift in power from one side of the Persian Gulf to another, but the Al Thani family means business.
Sheikh Fahad's Qipco banner is synonymous with the Champions Day project in England, and yesterday it was unveiled as the headline sponsor for the Irish Champion Stakes, the marquee event at this year's inaugural Irish equivalent.
It is a blue-chip upgrade that will see the purse for the Leopardstown Group One jump from €750,000 to €1m.
Such investment certainly goes a long way towards justifying the various Qatar trade missions undertaken by the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney and Horse Racing Ireland.
More compellingly, though, the amalgamation of Coolmore and the Al Thanis represents a potential bolstering of both superpowers' muscle in the battle for supremacy with Sheikh Mohammed.
It certainly adds a new twist to Ballydoyle's more relaxed association with Dubai World Cup night. On its inception in 1996, the apple of Sheikh Mohammed's racing vision was initially dismissed by many of the major international players. Few paid it less heed than Ballydoyle.
The Tipperary firm had its first runner there in 2005, but the consensus by then was that the damage had been done, as Sheikh Mohammed began boycotting the offspring of Coolmore's stallions, a strategy traced back to his greatest rival's indifference to his grand project at Nad Al Sheba.
The impasse was returned in kind. It was six years before another O'Brien runner graced the apex to the Dubai Racing Carnival, which by then had moved to its state-of-the-art Meydan venue. Master Of Hounds, one of three Ballydoyle runners in 2011, was chinned on the line in the UAE Derby.
Cape Blanco took fourth in the World Cup, as O'Brien's first runner in the race represented a further olive branch. In 2012, his Daddy Long Legs sluiced up in the UAE Derby, with St Nicholas Abbey denied by Cirrus Des Aigles in the Sheema Classic under the trainer's son, Joseph.
So You Think's presence in the World Cup that night offered more evidence of a shift in O'Brien's mindset. Last year, St Nicholas Abbey stormed to victory in the Sheema Classic under his newly crowned champion jockey, and Helene Super Star plundered another UAE Derby.
No one knows what prompted the change of attitude towards the fixture, but it was an episode from which Coolmore emerged with some credit.
Maybe it was plain old diplomatic sense prevailing or maybe it would simply have been bad business not to attempt to heal such a corrosive rift.
Sheikh Mohammed, on the other hand, remains cool on Coolmore-sired yearlings, though he has backed the operation's pedigrees, boosting his own stud roster by buying into Jim Bolger's class duo Teofilo and New Approach.
Now, Ballydoyle's decision to finally embrace his flamboyant Dubai project has been rewarded with a left-field gesture. Such an open-minded approach has become part of Coolmore's commercial modus operandi of late.
Joe Allen has a share in Declaration Of War and War Command and China's Teo Ah King is part-owner of this year's Classic fancy Australia. Indeed, it was the welcome given to Dubai-based Jim and Fitri Hay that was perceived as the bridge across which the path back to Dubai was built.
The Hays got involved in Cape Blanco in 2011, and he duly broke the impasse. Tomorrow, fellow Classic winners Magician (Sheema Classic) and Ruler Of The World form part of a potent six-strong Ballydoyle contingent among a 16-strong Irish delegation.
It will be fascinating to see if Ruler Of The World can make it third time lucky for O'Brien in the climactic Group One.
If he does, not only would Sheikh Mohammed find himself presenting his beloved World Cup to his oldest rival, but the man with a hand on the other side of the trophy would represent a clear and present threat from far closer to home.