As Kentucky Derby season gets underway, a team of lawyers in Louisville and Southern California has filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking the body to bar Dubai’s ruler from participation over alleged human rights violations.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who rules Dubai and is vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, is accused of holding his 33-year-old daughter, Sheikha Latifa, in captivity, cut off from the outside world, after she attempted to escape the emirate early last year.
In a regulatory complaint filed Monday morning, lawyers Lisa Bloom of the Bloom Firm and Sam Marcosson, who teaches at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, asked the Commission to bar the sheikh “from activities associated with horse racing in the Commonwealth.”
Sheikh Mohammed owns Godolphin, a self-described “thoroughbred breeding operation and horse racing team,” which has two breeding farms in Versailles and Lexington. His filly, Flor de La Mar, is expected to run in this year’s Kentucky Oaks, on May 3.
Godolphin has run 10 horses in the Derby since 1999. Marcosson described it as “one of the largest racing operations in the world.”
“It is time to ban Sheikh Mohammed, everyone associated with him … from the Derby, the Oaks and all horse racing events in Kentucky,” Bloom wrote in a press release. “Surely as a country that believes in women’s rights and the sovereignty of the American flag that is the very least we can do.”
Bloom has been public in her appeals for Latifa’s release, and last month called for a boycott of Dubai.
Latifa is one of Sheikh Mohammed’s 30 children. She unsuccessfully attempted to escape her restricted life in Dubai at age 16 before trying to claim political asylum in the United States last year, according to the complaint. Reports indicate that Indian and Emirati forces intercepted her U.S.-flagged yacht in international waters, a move Marcosson described as an affront to American sovereignty.
“Our goal is to make sure that as much attention is brought to this situation as possible, and more importantly, to bar Sheikh Mohammad from his passion, which is his involvement in horse racing here in Kentucky and elsewhere,” Marcosson said.
The billionaire sheikh is one of the richest people in the world, but Marcosson said the strategy of targeting his horses is not an attempt on his wallet — it’s an attempt on his heart. Marcosson said it’s possible that not participating in the Oaks and Derby is a price Sheikh Mohammed may not be willing to pay.
“If we can send the message that we care about human rights, that the Kentucky horse racing industry cares about human rights, perhaps it will have the kind of impact we hope for, which is to get her released,” Marcosson said. “We care much more about that than we do about actually barring Sheikh Mohammed.”
Marcosson pointed to a Kentucky statute that gives the Commission the authority to “dissipate any cloud of association with the undesirable.” That would allow the body to bar anyone “whose conduct or reputation is such that his presence on association grounds may … reflect on the honesty and integrity of horse racing.”
There’s precedent for this kind of ban, Marcosson said. He said the Commission has barred individuals convicted of fraud or involved in sexual assault. He pointed out that those are offenses not related to horse racing or the business of horse racing.
“The Commission has made it clear through its own actions, that they take a broad view of what sorts of conduct can constitute a threat to the honesty and integrity of the horse racing profession,” he said.
A representative at the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission could not immediately confirm those examples, nor was he authorized to provide further comment.
Marcosson said there is no valid reason the Commission would not bar Sheikh Mohammed.
“We trust that the Commission will not allow his influence, his power to affect how they treat this charge,” Marcosson said.
With three weeks to go until Kentucky Oaks and Derby weekend, it is possible the Commission may not complete an investigation or related hearings in time to stop Sheikh Mohammed’s participation this year, if it decides to take on such actions at all.
Marcosson said Bloom, a former law school classmate, approached him about the issue in late March, and they worked together with a team of U of L law students to write the complaint. He said it could not have been filed any sooner.
If Sheikh Mohammed does relent and safely release Latifa, Marcosson said it would then be acceptable for the Commission to lift any suspension on the ruler. He said a release would show compliance with “certain norms of behavior.”
The goal of this action is to obtain Latifa’s release, Marcosson said.
“Whether he has a horse that runs during the current Churchill Downs meet at Oaks, or whether action is taken against him after that — all of that, at least in my mind, is secondary to her fate,” he said.
He acknowledged that Godolphin is a major player in the Kentucky horse racing industry and said his team does not want to cause the loss of jobs or revenue. Instead, he said, they want to see a change in the sheikh’s behavior to preserve those jobs and help horse racing here continue to thrive.
Representatives from Godolphin did not respond to requests for comment on Monday afternoon.