Racing is saddled with Sheikh Mohammed – all we can do is stop cheering

A new podcast series raises serious questions about the Dubai ruler’s suitability as an owner but the sport is far too reliant on his investment to act

Owen Slot, The Times
May 31, 2024

The third-favourite in the Betfred Derby at Epsom on Saturday afternoon is Ancient Wisdom, a three-year-old bay colt owned by Golophin, the racing operation funded by Sheikh Mohammed. There is nothing unusual in that because Mohammed is the most successful owner in British Flat racing.

Mohammed’s Godolphin stable is, by some distance, leading the Flat owners’ championship. In the 2,000 Guineas, the first classic of the season, another of his horses, Notable Speech, came in a 16-1 winner. In the long-running rivalry between the two biggest owners in British racing, Godolphin and Coolmore, the Irish operation, Godolphin is clearly ahead with no signs of slowing down.

The question, though, is: should Mohammed even be licensed to own horses that compete in British races?

Mohammed’s Godolphin stable owns the third-favourite in Saturday’s Derby

This is such a problematic topic for British racing that it is barely ever touched upon. It became particularly tricky four years ago when the UK High Court found that, on the balance of probabilities, Mohammed was responsible for the abduction of two of his own daughters.

Heads were ducking all round again two years ago when another High Court, settling a case between Mohammed and his ex-wife, Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, found that a “campaign of fear, intimidation and harassment” had been conducted by Mohammed against Princess Haya and that “domestic abuse” had been “conducted on a scale which is entirely outside the ordinary circumstances of cases heard in the family court”.

These issues were touched upon in these pages after the Princess Haya decision two years ago. However, on the eve of another Derby comes further staggering detail about the country’s superstar racehorse owner, revealed in an extraordinary in-depth investigation, a four-part podcast series entitled The Runaway Princesses.

The podcast is a co-production between The New Yorker and In The Dark, with most of the heavy lifting done by the award-winning investigative journalist Heidi Blake, formerly of The Sunday Times.

Mohammed was found to have conducted a “campaign of fear, intimidation and harassment” against Princess Haya (MARK CUTHBERT/UK PRESS/GETTY)

The Runaway Princesses sells itself as: “A story of why the women in Sheikh Mohammed’s family keep trying to run away and what’s happening to them when they do.” Its most astonishing testimony comes in previously unheard recordings from Princess Latifa, one of Mohammed’s daughters, who had tried to escape from the clutches of the Dubai royal family in 2018.

In her escape attempt, however, Latifa was seized from a boat by Indian commandos off the coast of Goa and then returned to Dubai, facts that were established by a United Nations panel in 2022 that declared that she had been handed over in a “de facto swap”, between India and Dubai, in exchange for a businessman in Dubai wanted for bribery in India.

Even before you get to Latifa, though, the investigation hears from chauffeurs who say they used to work for Mohammed, who alleged that they would drive carloads of sex workers to his Longcross estate in Surrey and claimed that some of the women were in on the journeys back to London, some in tears, “blood on the seats” and an occasion when a woman had tried to escape from the house, had been chased and was beaten by staff members. She cried all the way home too.

The podcast records here: “We should note that Sheik Mohammed’s attorneys deny that he exploited sex workers.”

After Latifa’s Dubai escape had been foiled, she was imprisoned and the High Court subsequently found her claim to have been tortured credible. This is another part of her testimony in the podcast in which she describes being dragged from her blood-stained mattress, night after night, and beaten by guards who hit her feet with a heavy wooden cane to the point that her bones were broken and she couldn’t walk so she had to drag herself along the floor to go to the lavatory.

Again, the podcast notes here: “Sheikh Mohammed’s attorneys deny that he imprisoned or mistreated Latifa.”

There will be uncomfortable scenes if Ancient Wisdom triumphs on Derby day (NIGEL FRENCH/PA)

The fourth and final part of the series is as disturbing as any of it as it recounts Latifa’s continued incarceration and the gradual breaking of her will to push for her freedom. “I am reaching a point where I am getting so tired of everything,” she says. “I don’t understand what it will take for him to release me.”

She told the human rights lawyer David Haigh that the guards wouldn’t even let her open the window and that she felt that she was “dying a slow death”.

Of course none of this really has anything to do with Ancient Wisdom and the Derby, apart from the blindest of eye turned by the racing establishment. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) could — or you may argue, it should — apply its Ownership Guidance that has a section under “Honesty and Integrity” in which Mohammed could come a cropper. The suitability of an owner can also be questioned by the BHA if the applicant has had adverse findings against his or her name in civil court proceedings. There is no shortage of that.

When contacted byThe Times, the BHA fell back on a statement on the subject from March 2021 in which it said that it had been in touch with the government on the matter. The statement makes two significant points, that “these are complex matters involving an overseas state with strategic ties to the United Kingdom. The matters go well beyond the world of racing” and that Mohammed makes “a significant investment and contribution to the British racing industry”.

No matter how acutely uncomfortable that feels, that is the reality. Mohammed is a huge financial foundation stone in British racing; you remove him and the sport topples.

In this, racing is really just years ahead of so many sports that have courted foreign investment and now find themselves reliant on it. Once in, it seems, there is no way back. And neither is it just racing or just sport, it is the way of government, of so many aspects of public finance and public life.

Nothing will change that. But if Ancient Wisdom finishes in the winner’s enclosure on Saturday afternoon, just think twice before cheering.