The Aga Khan and racing - what a voyage it has been

I WILL be away for a few days this week and consequently will be unable to get racing. However, the space gives me the opportunity to look back at one of the most successful breeding empires that we have ever seen.

I WILL be away for a few days this week and consequently will be unable to get racing. However, the space gives me the opportunity to look back at one of the most successful breeding empires that we have ever seen.

Few things, not least some of the turf’s strongest institutions are unaffected by the passage of time. Countless owners as well as breeders have been swept away and even the blood of Hyperion have all but washed through pedigrees. Yet one thoroughbred bastion survives the pounding of its walls and stands as tall as it ever has. I refer, of course, to the true litmus of HH The Aga Khans Studs.

Contemplate it by numbers. The family has celebrated 28 Derby successes in England, Ireland and France since Pot Au Feu claimed the first of them in 1924. Zarkava’s victory in the 2008 Prix d Diane marked the 60th Classic triumph in those countries and for a tour de force how about the five Group1s on Ark weekend a couple of years ago?

Little wonder then that the Tsui family chose to commit Sea The Stars’ future to the court of this powerful enterprise. A benefit to both parties is that the Aga Khan will breed to Sea The Stars, and this will be a huge fillip to the career of the former John Oxx inmate.

Sea the Stars arrival at Gilltown Stud also added lustre to a significant personal milestone for the Aha Khan, who inherited the family’s bloodstock 50 years earlier. A strong team of older horses promises to keep the famous green and red silks to the four during this emotional time.

Now 75 years of age, the Aga Khan has amalgamated mares from the late Jean-Luc Lagardere into the fold which are bred from a broad cross-section of fast American lines and help to make up the 220 mares that are currently spread across his breeding empire.

For all his wealth the Aga Khan insists that his studs must aspire to pay their way and this is why matings and the rearing of young stock are examined in minute detail.

Inevitably there are blips along the way as he experienced 20 or so years ago when his stallion roster expanded with middle distance stallions which were dismissed by commercial breeders as being unsuitable for their purpose.

Wise decision

Convinced of their value, the Aga Khan decided to support them himself, which resulted in the arrival of Mouktar and Kahyasi which won three Derbys in the late 1980’s, but the commercial breeders remained elusive. The sale of some of his top mares, including the disqualified oaks winner Aliysa for commercial reasons was seen as a serious blow.

However, it turned out to be a wise decision as a greater percentage of outside stallions were used and the studs have never looked back since.

Only 23 years old when his father, Prince Aly Khan, died in a car crash in a Paris suburb in 1960, the Aga Khan thought long and hard before he decided to continue the breeding and racing tradition, but with the victories of Saint-Crispin and Petite Etoile fresh in his mind he decided to carry on.

Indeed, the latter, which had no less than eight Group1 successes to her credit, was probably the main reason for this decision. Although disappointing at stud she produced a Habitat filly called Zahra after the Aga’s daughter and she produced five fillies from six live foals all of which acquired black-type and the line continues to this day.

Some voyage

When once asked if he would recommend somebody to go into the breeding game he replied that if he told them the truth of how long it took him to learn they wouldn’t go anywhere near it. But at the same time it had been quite a voyage.

Of his Classic winners he nominated Shergar’s 1981 ten length Derby romp as ‘special’ because of the way he did it, but laments his early demise. His daughter Princess Zahra is now in line to become the fourth family member to have responsibility for the studs, which have functioned for 92 unbroken years and all owe a debt of gratitude to a spate of advisors and employees over that time.