The young Qatari royal was instantly smitten as he attended his first horse race at the home of British Flat racing in Newmarket.
It was 2010, and Sheikh Fahad bin Abdullah Al Thani was so gripped watching the historic 2,000 Guineas Classic he bought his first race horse soon after.
Together with his brothers, the now 29-year-old - the son of a former prime minister of Qatar - has become a dominant force in the “Sport of Kings.”
Their Qatar Racing is now challenging the world’s biggest racehorse operations, such as Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum’s Godolphin , and Irish billionaire John Magnier’s Coolmore outfit.
Last year, the brothers had one of their best seasons, making £3.1 million ($4 million) in prize money in Flat racing in Britain alone. That’s second only to Godolphin, whose runners earned £4.5 million ($5.9M), according to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA).
“The Qatari ruling family are hugely significant players in the thoroughbred market, most notably in Europe,” Jimmy George, marketing director of Europe’s leading bloodstock auctioneers, Newmarket-based Tattersalls, told CNN Sport.
“They’re a very well-established part of the global thoroughbred racing and breeding industry now, and hugely important to all the sales at Tattersalls.”
As a member of the Qatari ruling family, Sheikh Fahad is a wealthy man in his own right. But his meteoric rise can’t just be explained by him throwing vast sums of cash at the sport.
He has climbed to the top through a combination of canny investing, talent spotting and hiring some of the best people in the business.
In the beginning, Sheikh Fahad asked David Redvers, a Briton who had run his own Tweenhills racing operation in England for 15 years, to become his bloodstock and racing manager under the Pearl Bloodstock banner.
Their cooperation got off to a flying start when Lightening Pearl landed a first Group 1 success in the Cheveley Park Stakes in 2011.
Later that year Dunaden scooped $3.9 million for winning the prestigious Melbourne Cup in a photo finish – a significant sporting and business achievement given Redvers had bought the French horse for just €120,000 ($135,896) the year before.
By comparison, Sheikh Mohammed finally won the Melbourne Cup, the world’s richest turf race, only last year with Cross Counter, after more than three decades of trying and millions of dollars in investment.
Dunaden, who also won the Hong Kong Vase and Caulfield Cup, is now retired to stud, having earned Qatar Racing more than £5 million ($6.5 million) on the track.
That’s not bad for a horse without a fancy pedigree who was once bought as a yearling at an auction in France for €1500 ($1700) by a Dutch couple who ran a dog grooming and breeding business.
Sheikh Fahad’s Melbourne triumph eventually led to the foundation of Qatar Racing in 2012.
“Everything boils down to Sheikh Fahad’s passion for the game, and when he won the Melbourne Cup in 2011 with Dunaden, he brought in the rest of the Qataris,” Redvers told Throroughbredracing.com in 2015.
Chaired by Sheikh Fahad, with its bloodstock and racing activities managed by Redvers, Qatar Racing has grown into a global operation, with horses in training in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the US, according to its website.
In 2013, Qatar Racing won its first European Classic when Just The Judge triumphed at the Irish 1,000 Guineas.
Since then, the group, whose jockeys race in colors of claret with gold braid, has posted wins at Group or Grade 1 level all over the world, including in Australia, Canada, the US, France and Britain.
Qatar’s emergence as a racing superpower, alongside its other sporting interests, such as its controversial hosting of the 2022 Fifa World Cup, can also be witnessed off the track.
Qatar Racing is owned by QIPCO Holding, one of the biggest private investment companies in the gas-rich country. Sheikh Fahad’s brother Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani is the QIPCO chief executive.
In 2011, QIPCO struck a multi-million-pound deal to back the British Champions Series, which includes Flat racing’s biggest races. “It opens a lot of doors for us,” Sheikh Fahad told Bloomberg News in 2012. “Sports unites the world, and that’s the vision of Qatar.”
In 2015, QIPCO extended the agreement by nine years, taking prize money for the British Champions Day, the richest day in British racing in October, to £5 million ($6.5) by 2024, and lifting prize money for the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas races to £500,000 each ($657,000). It also continued its endorsement of Ascot Racecourse until 2024.
“Our sponsorship of the sport has benefited our bloodstock operation and increased the country’s international profile,” said Sheikh Hamad in a statement at the time. “We are proud to support British racing and its wonderful heritage.”
Qatar Racing’s top horse last year was Roaring Lion, a three-year-old colt saddled by British champion trainer John Gosden.
Bought by Redvers for just $160,000 at the 2016 Keeneland sales in Kentucky, Roaring Lion was named Horse of the Year in Europe after winning four straight Group 1 races.
Following his successful racing career, the grey was retired to Tweenhills Stud this year, where he is expected to out earn his £2.7 million ($3.5M) prize money on the track.
“Roaring Lion has been the horse of a lifetime for us; he has exceeded our expectations,” Sheikh Fahad, who watched Roaring Lion win the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in October while sitting next to the British monarch in the Royal Box , said on the Qatar Racing website.
‘Trying to make stallions’
Never ones to rest on their laurels, Sheikh Fahad and Redvers are already on the lookout for the next big racing star.
In October, Redvers spent 3.5 million guineas ($4.8 million) on behalf of Qatar Racing for a colt at Tattersalls sales, making it the most expensive yearling sold in Europe in 2018.
Although it seems risky to pay so much money for an unproven racehorse, the colt is a full brother to Too Darn Hot, one of Europe’s best-performing two-year-olds in 2018, also trained by Gosden. He could prove to be another sound investment for Qatar Racing.
“These horses don’t come up very often, but if he’s as good as the full brother he’s a very cheap horse,” Redvers told the Racing Post after the sale.
“We’re all trying to make stallions and that’s the future of our operation, finding these types that are good enough to be the most exciting horses at stud.”