Friday 24 January 2020

Major players have company at the top

Thierry Jarnet and Treve win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe
Thierry Jarnet and Treve win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe

Ian McClean

Heady stuff the past week in bloodstock circles. Following Treve's swaggering success in the Bois de Boulogne on Sunday, the sport of kings' attention trained its competitive focus on the sales ring at Tattersalls in Newmarket where the record price for a yearling was broken in consecutive days contributing to a horse fair that became the highest grossing in European auction history.

Whatever 'greatness' is – we seem hard-wired as human beings to indefatigably pursue it and be seduced by it: in sport, in business, in science, technology, design or the arts.

Sea Bird is commonly held as the ultimate gold standard for the thoroughbred in modern times and his Arc victory is eternally etched in our memories – in celluloid – as most of us were not present then to witness it in 1965. My first live Arc was Peintre Celebre's 1997 streak and, to this day, I have rarely witnessed a burst of acceleration to match what rendered me breathless that day. Montjeu was brilliant two years later, but his four-year-old career failed to mirror that brilliance and so he retired to the paddocks slightly tainted.

Whatever about the greatness of the past, the last few years have seen an inordinate surge in seemingly indomitable talent on the racecourse, and just as one champion retires to the paddocks and we are assured we will never see their like again along comes another. Zarkava retired unbeaten in 2008 after winning the Guineas, Oaks, Vermeille in her native France. Those three Group Ones preceded a remarkable Arc victory at the start of which she stumbled leaving the stalls, forfeited a dozen lengths, yet still managed to win in a record time.

Sea The Stars was the showstopper in an unforgettable 2009 campaign. In 2010, the Racing Post said Harbinger's win by 11 lengths in the King George – shattering the course record – was "a devastating performance that will live long in the memory".

We had to wait two seasons for the next epitome of equine excellence to arrive, and were rewarded by two – one from either hemisphere in the forms of Frankel and Black Caviar. And just when we thought we were experiencing a year of greatness-relief, up pops Treve with a dismissal of an Arc field to rival the 1986 collection dispatched by Dancing Brave – and with even greater disdain.

As we struggle to classify the unbeaten three-year-old filly in the latest pantheon of greats, two things are assured – the reputed €8m spent by Qatari Sheikh Joann after her French Oaks win looks well worth it now; and whatever appetite Qatar had for a seat at racing and breeding's richest banquet, it has just been enhanced by the ultimate sauce. Interviewed directly after Treve's win, another member of the Al Thani family described the feeling of victory as "unspeakable". Given that the weekend was the occasion of a family affair for the Qatari ruling dynasty, the result is likely to have fuelled an even greater desire for even more.

Sheikh Joann's vehicle (Al Shaqab Racing) then almost topped the buyers' poll at Tattersalls by spending over 10 million guineas on 16 lots – amongst them the five million guineas record yearling price paid for a sister to 2012 Oaks winner Was.

Moreover, cousin Sheikh Fahad was underbidder for the second highest-priced lot, paid by MV Magnier for a full brother to Secret Gesture on Tuesday. The Al Thani family influence was in fact so significant last week it prompted Tattersalls' Edmond Mahony to remark in his review statement "the already considerable Qatari influence has been remarkable".

The Al Thani dynasty has been ruler of Qatar since the middle of the 19th century. With an estimated 15 per cent of the world's entire gas reserves, it has been listed as the world's richest country by Forbes magazine for the past three years. In the UK, Qatari investment makes it the largest shareholder in major companies such as Barclays and Sainsbury's. It purchased Harrods for £1.5bn in 2010 and was the principal force in erecting Europe's tallest landmark (at 310m), the 'Shard' in London.

Qatar's interest in bloodstock began three years ago with the purchase of 2,000 Guineas winner Makfi. Sheikh Fahad's initial approach to ownership was relatively modest, but Sheikh Joann quickly demonstrated he means business by appointing Frankie Dettori on retainer earlier this season. Horses like Toronado, Olympic Glory (French 2,000 Guineas winner), Style Vendome, Planteur and Sandiva have all been recent high-profile private purchases before he dived in deep with Treve. Both men are under 30.

It seems from last week's activity that, far from quenching the thirst for success, Treve's victory has only fuelled the thirst for more. The infectiousness of a grand family Arc weekend could see the entry of further Al Thanis into the market. It was 1977 when Hatta became the first winner for Sheikh Mohammed and planted the seeds for a bloodstock empire.

Perhaps the Al Thani family will be heeding the favourite mantra of its Emirates neighbour's principal: "In the search for excellence there is no finish line". The whole bloodstock industry will be hoping so.

Sunday Independent

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