Ten years after first showing an interest in the equine world, Sheikh Fahad bin Abdullah Al Thani has become a serious player as well as immersing himself in the heartbeat of British horse racing in Newmarket.
And not just in horse racing – in Newmarket seven-a-side football circles, Sheikh Fahad has earned himself a reputation as as a lethal defender.
On the surface, it is an unlikely moniker for the member of the Qatari Royal family, who has helped transform British horse racing from sponsoring the once struggling Champions Day by QIPCO to owning winners of races ranging from the Melbourne Cup to the St. Leger.
His racing manager David Redvers – the man the sheikh first approached to get into the sport – said: “He’s exceptionally passionate about it. He lives in Newmarket and I don’t think he’s ever missed a race where we’ve had a runner.
“Plus, he sponsors a seven-a-side football team. I think he’s a lethal defender and you need to look after your ankles! But he’s made British racing his home and we’re lucky to have him.”
Redvers is particularly grateful. At the time he was first approached, Redvers’ Tweenhills operation was struggling having, as he put it, “just lost two stallions through premature demises,” leaving his business in a precarious position.
He was contacted to say a Qatari sheikh wanted to buy a racehorse. At the same time, the so-called “Fake Sheikh” from the now defunct British newspaper the News of the World had been tricking high-profile celebrities, and Redvers was initially suspicious.
“When something like a sheikh wanting to buy comes out of the blue, of course you question it,” he said. “I had just landed in New Zealand but I immediately turned back round and came back.”
In the meantime Redvers used a military contact to find out more about Sheikh Fahad, but almost missed what would prove to be a transformative meeting.
“It was 3 a.m. and I feel asleep at Sydney Airport so I missed my connecting flight,” Redvers recalled, although he did manage to just make the meeting.
“We basically had a simple conversation in that he was fascinated with racing and wanted to get involved as an owner, to start small and, if it was profitable, to dip his toe in the water. It was music to my ears, I relished the challenge and rose to it.”
Melbourne Cup glory
The first horse bought nearly doubled in value in the space of a week and, two years after that first conversation, they had won the prestigious Melbourne Cup with Dunaden.
“Suddenly, all the Qatari and racing world sat up bolt upright as to what one young nephew of the Emir had achieved on his own,” said Redvers, who later helped the Sheikh and his brothers set up the hugely successful Qatar Racing as well as encouraging them to sponsor the Champions Series, a tie-up which still runs to this day.
“It’s been full-on investment from them and basically success breeds success. We thankfully had that right from the off.”
Sheikh Fahad was just 20 when he first met Redvers. A decade on and the relationship has blossomed with the injection of interest and money from Qatar showing echoes of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s foray into British horse racing in the 1970s.
As for the key to his boss’ success, Redvers is quite clear: “One loves enthusiasm in someone and a shared enthusiasm is even better. From day one, I certainly felt this is a man I can work with. It’s obvious that you can use enthusiasm as a real force for good in horse racing.
“Take the British Champions Day concept for example. That was struggling to get off the ground, he loved the idea of Champions Day and that fact it was a wonderful opportunity to broaden the appeal of racing and bring in new people. It’s taken a lot of investment to make it happen and that can’t be relied on for ever.”
‘You get less for murder these days’
High-profile racing from Qatar is more than just Sheikh Fahad but his successful emergence also helped spawn Al Shaqab racing, owned by his uncle, with Redvers seeing Melbourne Cup-winner Dunaden as the key turning point.
“Suddenly Qataris who thought horse racing was the exclusive land of Sheikh Mohammed realized that anyone could give it a go and it raised the profile on the world stage,” he added.
Redvers refers to Sheikh Fahad “as like family” and likes to joke that “you get less for murder these days” of the decade they have been in partnership.
“He was 20 when I met him and he’s 30 now and I’ve enjoyed seeing him develop,” said Redvers. “He’s become an incredibly astute judge of form, there’s nothing for me to tell him now. Plus he’s very down to earth and very good company.
“He’s just as happy talking to the lads in the yard as he is any training. My remit is to run the business as profitably as I can. We made a significant profit last year and will do again this which is pretty rare in the horse racing world.
“Now we’re breeding the majority of the stock we race although we still buy a few to fill the gaps. He’ll continue to be large pat of this sport for years to come. Again, we’re lucky to have him.”