LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The Arab oil sheikhs are the Chicago Cubs of the Kentucky Derby. Heading into the 141st running, they are one for 18 in the world's most famous horse race – and there's an asterisk attached to the win. If this were college football, you'd want to schedule the sheikhs for homecoming.
It's not that they haven't tried. Since making their debut at the Keeneland sales in 1979, the sheikhs have spent enough money to make Donald Trump's fortune look like chump change. You could almost retire America's national debt with the money they've blown on horseflesh and farm land in Central Kentucky.
Their Derby horses have run in the names of Godolphin Stable, Juddmonte Farm, Buckram Oak Farm, Shadwell Stud, Zabeel Racing International and the Thoroughbred Corp. Your humble correspondent may be missing a couple. For example, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates ran a couple in his own name.
They all ran up track except for War Emblem, who won the 2002 Derby for the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
But here's where the asterisk comes in. War Emblem was bred in Kentucky by Charles Nuckols Jr. & Sons. Until three weeks before the Derby, he ran for Russell Reineman, a Chicago businessman. But after the colt won the Illinois Derby on April 6, Reineman sold 90 percent interest to Salman for $1 million.
All this was perfectly legal, but it was sort of like buying controlling interest in the New England Patriots a week before they won the Super Bowl. He was charged with being a mercenary, an opportunist and worse. Of course, Salman was hardly the first rich guy to buy a Derby contender at the last moment; he was just the first to be successful at it.
Even his fellow Arabs were angry that he beat them to the punch. The Maktoum family, and most of the others, long ago committed themselves to developing a Derby winner the old-fashioned way – either breeding it themselves or developing it after a sales purchase. Their majestic breeding farms, sprinkled across the Blue Grass of Central Kentucky, are monuments to their dreams.
It was a bit awkward, to say the least, that an Arab prince won the first Derby held after Sept. 11. Emotions were still so raw that Salman did not attend War Emblem's bid for the Triple Crown at Belmont Park, which is located on Long Island only a few miles from where the World Trade Center towers had stood.
Of course, maybe it was just as well. Salman would have been sickened by the sight of War Emblem stumbling so badly out of the gate that the race was lost even before it got under way.
War Emblem came along exactly a decade after Arazi came into the Derby touted as a super-horse. Owned by Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Maktoum in partnership with American airplane mogul Allen Paulsen, Arazi won the 1991 Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs with a move so breathtaking that he immediately was anointed as the sport's next great thing.
But after returning to Europe and having leg surgery, Arazi was never the same. His hype machine kept grinding, though, and he was sent off as the 4-to-5 favorite in the 1992 Derby. He made a move in the turn for home, but flattened out and struggled home eighth behind Lil E. Tee and jockey Pat Day.
Since then, American bettors have grown skeptical of Arab-owned horses. It didn't help matters that the sheiks insisted on prepping their contenders in Dubai instead of shipping them over for the American preps. The sheikhs insisted on doing things the same way every year but expecting a different result. Sort of like Charlie Brown believing that this time Lucy won't snatch away the football.
But guess what? This might just be the year it's time to Sheikh, Rattle and Roll in the Derby.
In Frosted and Mubtaahij, the Arabs have a 1-2 punch that might just give The Big Three – American Pharaoh, Dortmund and Carpe Diem – a run for its money.
Owned by Godolphin Racing LLC, Frosted is a big, well-bred colt who earned his ticket to Louisville by winning the Wood Memorial. The colt is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, a former D. Wayne Lukas assistant who grew up in Lexington. He spent three years in Dubai, training for the Maktoums, before returning to this country.
Folks close to McLaughlin say he "loves" Frosted and isn't a bit intimidated by The Big Three. The colt had some problems in his first two starts of the year, but McLaughlin changed several things, including putting blinkers on him, and it all came together in the Wood.
Mubtaahij, which is Arabic for "elated," was bred in Ireland and has an owner from Dubai (Sheikh Mohammad bin Khalifa Al Makoum), a trainer from South Africa (the highly regarded Mike de Kock), and a jockey from Belgium (Christophe Soumillon).
As if that's not confusing enough, he will be the first Derby contender since 1996 winner Grindstone to run without the anti-bleeding medication Lasix. And he won't be shod until the day of the race. Anybody know how to handicap all this unorthodox stuff?
Asked about the decision to not use Lasix, de Kock said, "It's purely about bleeding. As I understand things, Lasix is there to assist known bleeders and there has not even been a suspicion of this horse ever bleeding. I'm not sure what he'll do if given Lasix, and because he's never bled, I'm not prepared to gamble on his performance being altered with Lasix."
And there's this: He's the only Derby contender who has run – and won – at a mile and 3/16ths, which is only a 16th shorter than the Derby's mile and a quarter. All the top American prep races are contested over a mile and an eighth.
After winning in Dubai, Mubtaahij was shipped to Arlington Park, where he seems to be doing fine. Got that? He has been training in the home city of the Cubs. Wonder if you can get down a parlay bet in Vegas on Mubtaahij winning the Derby and the Cubs capturing the World Series?
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and contributes occasional sports columns to WAVE3.com.