For three decades, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai has "represented much that is great in British horse-racing", says The Economist. It wasn't just the billions he pumped into the sport that counted, he also burnished it with a combination of "old-fashioned style" and "intense professionalism".
Hence the sheer bewilderment felt by many turf aficionados on news that the sheikh's Godolphin stable is at the centre of the biggest doping scandal in racing history. "It could hardly be more shocking," observed one, "if the Queen turned out to be a heroin addict."
The sport of kings is sullied and with it the sheikh's reputation: even though he's not thought to have known that his head trainer, Mahmood Al Zarooni, was cheating (see below). The scandal has dealt this proud autocrat a blow right up there with the "personal humiliation" he suffered in 2010 when his desert economic miracle crashed and he had to go cap in hand to "Uncle Abu Dhabi" for a $20bn bail-out, says The Observer.
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The sheikh, 63, has always meticulously tended his self-image, establishing a "distinctive personality cult" as a "poet, statesman, sportsman and visionary". In his "singular drive toward world domination", no scheme was too grandiose; no ambition impossible. He only reluctantly abandoned an extraordinary plan to have some of his own poetry written on the waters of the Persian Gulf, in the form of man-made islands large enough to be read from space.
Arguably, the only thing that eclipses the sheikh's passion for his Dubai fiefdom is his obsession with building the "most expensive stable of fast horses in human history". Horses are ingrained on his psyche. The love dates back to childhood, when the sheikh and his brothers were encouraged by their father the shrewd initiator of modern Dubai, Sheikh Rashid to stay close to their "camel-driving roots" as horsemen.
From a young age, Mohammed rode long-distance races in the desert. Educated in Dubai, he came to Britain to study at a Cambridge language school and later at Sandhurst. But he spent most of his time at Newmarket.
These days, he follows much the same schedule as his 400 thoroughbreds: wintering in Dubai with his first wife; and then airlifting the entire menage to Newmarket in the spring, which he spends with his "racing wife", the Olympic show-jumper Princess Haya of Jordan.
Sheikh Mohammed, says Simon Barnes in The Times, is one of those people you don't expect to like, but who ends up seducing you. For me, the deciding factor was the "quite colossal joy" he took in the Godolphin enterprise. "It was the Arab spirit, made flesh in the middle of the mad horsey metropolis of Newmarket. The whole thing reeked of love Now it will always be just a little spoilt."
'Get the best. Be the best. The pursuit of excellence'
"Foul deeds" and "nefarious conduct" have been "a feature of racing's story for centuries", says Roger Blitz in the FT. Newmarket's racing museum chronicles the hanging of Daniel Dawson in 1811 "for adding arsenic to the water trough in the town", killing four horses. Even so, this scandal which has already spread to another stable threatens to inflict "a shock almost beyond calculation on racing's Richter scale", says J McGrath on Telegraph.co.uk.
The sheikh's trainer, Mahmood Al Zarooni, claims he didn't know that administering anabolic steroids to 11 Godolphin horses was a breach of the rules. But many will wonder if his actions were "just the tip of the iceberg", says Tony Paley in The Guardian. "The racing authorities must take swift action to maintain confidence in the sport."
There is some confusion around steroids: they're banned in Britain but not in all countries. Still, the most plausible interpretation of the scandal, says Matthew Engel in the FT, is that Zarooni "felt out of his depth". Plucked from obscurity by the sheikh in 2010, "one can theorise" he was "over-promoted, under pressure and frightened of failure".
The sheikh's zeal can sometimes feel almost physically intimidating, concurs Brough Scott, the jockey-turned-commentator who set up the Racing Post with the sheik's backing. "He gets you in really close, almost so he can smell you, and says: Get the best. Be the best. The pursuit of excellence.'"
Racing has "suffered its Lance Armstrong moment", says Jim Armitage in The Independent. It will be back and so will Sheikh Mohammed, though he can't afford "to put a foot wrong in the clean-up".
When his Xanadu city-state crashed, many wrote it off. But Dubai is resurging. "When Mohammed messes up, he dusts himself down and starts again," says Andrew Monk, a City broker active in the region. The racing industry will be praying that form holds good.
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