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There have been few racehorse owners in recent decades who showed as much loyalty to their trainers as the late Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, who died in March 2021.
From his earliest days in the sport in the 1980s, being chosen to train for the Sheikh’s Shadwell Stud operation was pretty much a guarantee that more – often many more – impeccably bred horses would follow. While Sheikh Mohammed, his younger brother, famously sent a fleet of horse boxes to remove his entire string from Henry Cecil’s stable one morning, Sheikh Hamdan was characterised by his decision to buy a yard in Lambourn for Dick Hern in the mid-80s, after he was forced to quit the Queen’s stables at West Ilsley.
So it came as a bit of a jolt to hear confirmation over the weekend that several high-profile and very successful trainers have been cut from the Shadwell list, following a decision by Sheikha Hissa, the late owner’s daughter, to slim down the operation.
Sir Michael Stoute, the 10-time champion trainer, will no longer have any horses to run in the famous blue and white silks. Mark and Charlie Johnston, Ed Dunlop and Brian Meehan have also been dropped from the roster, along with Dermot Weld and Freddy Head in Ireland and France respectively.
The colours which were carried with such distinction by horses like Nashwan, Salsabil, Dayjur, Battaash and Taghrooda are not about to disappear from our tracks overnight, but a fresh direction of travel has been set. Shadwell announced plans to sell a “substantial” number of horses last September and while there were 630 runners in the blue and white in Britain in 2021, the total seems certain to fall well short of that this year.
Shadwell was also conspicuously absent from the high-profile Book 1 Sale at Tattersalls last year, at the end of a campaign on the track when their total number of runs from juveniles was below 200 for the first time in a decade, and the final tally of 160 was a drop of 38 from the number for 2012.
There is an inescapable sense here of gradual decline: carefully managed, perhaps, but decline all the same. And it is also impossible to ignore the fact that a significant number of the individuals whose colours have defined Flat racing for the last 40 years are now in their 70s, at least.
The silks of the leading owners are racing’s version of radio-carbon dating. Long-standing fans of the Flat could probably look through the colours on the runners in any Derby in the last half-century and guess, to within a year or two, when it was run. From the early 70s onwards, traditional owner-breeders like Lord Howard de Walden and Lord Weinstock were replaced by Robert Sangster, the Aga Khan, Sheikh Hamdan, Khalid Abdullah and Fahd Salman. They all left their mark before the various silks of the Coolmore syndicate and then the royal blue of Godolphin started to dominate the fields.
But it could all change again in 10, or even five, years’ time, when the process of colouring-in a new era on the turf may be well under way. What that might mean for the sport as a whole remains to be seen, but we can only hope that the big names dropped from the Shadwell roster this season are not a straw in the wind.