A one-man equine pantheon: remembering Khalid Abdullah and his top ten horses

Horse Racing Frankel Khalid Abullah
Frankel: Khalid Abdullah’s number one – and probably everyone else’s too. Photo: British Champions Series
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

Khalid Abdullah was a colossus of racing who owned and bred a galaxy of stars. NICHOLAS GODFREY has the painstaking task of picking the best ten. No, wait, make that eleven …

The racing world is united in mourning the death of Prince Khalid Abdullah, a titanic figure whose influence on the racing world has spanned five decades dating back to his first winner in Britain in 1979.

Certain themes have resonated through the many tributes and obituaries. Abdullah was a retiring, publicity-shy individual, a reserved and polite man of few words who, as the cliché goes, preferred to let his horses do the talking.

As respected as they come, Abdullah also exuded a courteous humility, styling himself ‘Mr K Abdullah’ on British racecards, and going anonymously under the Juddmonte Farms banner in the States, where he won four Eclipse Awards as Champion Owner and five as Outstanding Breeder. Here we can also reveal that he was known affectionately as ‘Kevin’ by the press-room doyens of the 1980s and 90s.

Horse Racing Khalid Abdullah 780
Khalid Abdullah: a legend of racing who will be much missed. Photo: Racing and Sports

Though the late Greville Starkey may have demurred, the owner’s loyalty over the years is well documented. According to popular lore, his longstanding support of Sir Henry Cecil played a significant role in extending the legendary trainer’s life after he was diagnosed with cancer. Frankel, and by extension Abdullah, kept Cecil going, it is widely suggested.

A class act through and through, then, but make no mistake: Abdullah liked – expected – to win. This towering figure’s enduring legacy to horse racing will come from the stellar horses, most of them homebred, who have carried his famous pink, green and white silks since the Jeremy Tree-trained Charming Native became his first winner at Windsor on May 14, 1979.

Much depends on how you define greatness, but even under the most stringent of parameters, Abdullah owned at least two such horses – probably, in fact, the two greatest horses of the modern era in Europe, headed by many people’s idea of the absolute greatest of all-time, anywhere.

Expand the definition of ‘greatness’ and Abdullah has at least four serious contenders for the pantheon, possibly more.

With that in mind, here’s my personal choice of the owner’s ten best racehorses. Super sires like Danehill and Dansili don’t make the cut on their racecourse achievements.

No prizes for guessing number one – but it speaks volumes for the legendary owner-breeder’s contribution in equine terms that this list includes only one of his three Derby winners and only one of his Breeders’ Cup scorers. 

Such is the hallmark of quality shot through anything involving the Juddmonte operation on both sides of the Atlantic. Prince Khalid Abdullah – that’s Mr K Abdullah, or ‘Kevin’ – will be much missed.

The Khalid Abdullah top ten

1. Frankel Sir Henry Cecil (GB)

Come on, you didn’t seriously expect anything else, did you? Any number of stunning performances linger in the memory about the Juddmonte homebred who forced us to reappraise what was possible for a racehorse: for example, July Cup pace for the first six furlongs of the 2,000 Guineas or that incredible 11-length demolition of a Group 1 field in the Queen Anne. After centuries of trying, Frankel represented the apogee of selective thoroughbred breeding. Superlative, untouchable, an equine nonpareil … the GOAT, as they say.

2. Dancing Brave Guy Harwood (GB)

Before Frankel, the highest-rated European-trained horse for 50 years, whose spectacular Arc victory under Pat Eddery in track-record time holds almost sacred status for a generation of British racing enthusiasts. Won the 2,000 Guineas, Eclipse and King George as well – and obviously should have won the Derby. Gets in anybody’s all-time Top Ten.

3. Enable John Gosden (GB)

Frankie Dettori’s favourite was next to unbeatable in her prime. Two Arcs and a record three King Georges feature among 11 Group 1 wins on her glittering CV; she scored at the top level from ages three through six, longevity alongside obvious quality, ensuring a lasting place in the affections of the racing public

4. Arrogate Bob Baffert (USA)

Had his career not fizzled out in such disappointing fashion, this rugged roan would be looked upon as one of the all-time greats of US racing. Frankly, he’s not far off anyway. Described by his trainer as the “dirt version of Frankel”, Arrogate went on an unforgettable winning spree to become the world’s all-time leading prize-money earner via victories in the Travers Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup. The last named, an extraordinary last-to-first effort, was arguably the most memorable display ever at Meydan.

5. Zafonic Andre Fabre (FR)

Explosive homebred colt with incredible turn of foot whose career was ended midway through his three-year-old campaign after he broke blood vessels in the Sussex Stakes. The homebred son of Gone West was unbeaten at two, winning the Prix Morny, Prix de la Salamandre and Dewhurst Stakes in hugely impressive fashion – and fulfilled that promise when breaking 45-year-old course record in a red-hot 2,000 Guineas. What might have been.

6. Warning Guy Harwood (GB)

By Known Fact, the owner’s first G1 winner (1979 Middle Park) and first Classic winner (1980 2,000 Guineas). Warning was a brilliant two-year-old who, despite fluffing his lines during his Classic campaign when he was beaten in the Craven Stakes, went on to become a champion miler at three with impressive performances in the Sussex Stakes and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. European champion at both two and three.

7. Kingman John Gosden (GB)

Can’t help thinking this superstar miler never quite got the plaudits he deserved, if such a statement isn’t slightly ridiculous as he was Cartier Horse of the Year for 2014. He was beaten in the Guineas and he wasn’t European champion – but crikey was he good, blessed with a blistering turn of foot and impossible to beat in a test of speed. The homebred son of Invincible Spirit ended his career with four G1 wins over a mile – but he would have won over six if he’d ever been asked.

8. Oasis Dream John Gosden (GB)

Described by John Gosden as the fastest horse he has ever trained, Oasis Dream won the July Cup in track-record time, beating Australia’s pioneering Royal Ascot hero Choisir in the process. Also won the Middle Park and Nunthorpe Stakes – and went on to sire the likes of Muhaarar and Midday during a highly successful stud career.

9. Workforce Sir Michael Stoute (GB)

OK, he never truly grabbed the imagination, but the list of horses to have won Europe’s two most prestigious races – the Derby and the Arc – in the same season isn’t overly long. Don’t forget he scored at Epsom by seven lengths in a record time.

10. Midday Sir Henry Cecil (GB)

A tough choice for another representative from the distaff side of the operation with the likes of Reams Of Verse, Banks Hill and Intercontinental also in the frame. Midday just about gets the nod, though, as a six-time G1 winner, among them three editions of the Nassau Stakes plus the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. She was beaten a neck attempting a repeat Breeders’ Cup success in 2010, one of the four times this popular filly was second at the highest level.

Honourable mention: Empire Maker Bobby Frankel (USA)

In due deference to Abdullah’s US operation, I’ve got mention another top-grade dirt performer in the horse who could have been a Triple Crown winner until a foot injury compromised his Kentucky Derby chances. He still finished a game third – before coming back to assert his superiority over the Classic crop by derailing his Churchill Downs conqueror Funny Cide’s own Triple Crown bid in the Belmont.

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