SBJ/June 10 - 16, 2002/Opinion

You can buy a horse, you can't make it win

From the Desert to the Derby. By Jason Levin (Daily Racing Form Press, 211 pages, $24.95).

This is not the way the 2002 Kentucky Derby was supposed to turn out — at least not for the ruling Maktoum family of Dubai.

Over the past quarter-century, Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers spent $1 billion of their Persian Gulf oil wealth on race horses. Their Godolphin Stables was built into a force in English and European racing, but that was not enough for the driven Sheikh Mo, who in 1998 vowed to win the greatest horse race in America, the Kentucky Derby, within four years — by 2002.

As it turns out, this year's Derby was won for the first time by an Arab owner, but it was Prince Ahmed Salman of Saudi Arabia and the horse he bought just weeks before the race, War Emblem. Godolphin's entry, Essence of Dubai, finished ninth.

Jason Levin, a writer for Foxsports.com and contributor to HorsePlayer magazine, follows the Maktoum family and its obsessive race for Churchill Downs in this breezy account of one owner's determination to seek victory and seek it his own way.

"Sheikh Mohammed is used to being in total control," Levin writes. His 2-year-old horses are flown to Dubai for the winter so he can oversee their training at his state-of-the-art stables. The horses run against one another, spurning the winter races that make up the traditional road to the Derby. Such an unorthodox strategy, if successful, would give the ego-driven sheikh a very personal victory for himself and for his country.

Levin takes the reader inside the annual Keeneland horse auctions in Lexington, Ky., where the Maktoum family spent $36 million in two days to buy 47 horses, and to race tracks from Del Mar to Saratoga. He outlines the trainer's philosophy in preparing a horse and how that philosophy translates into tactics during a race. Along the way, he sketches an overview of racing history on two continents. Despite the detail, "From the Desert" remains clearly understandable by even the horse racing novice.

Though this book was published before the 2002 Run for the Roses, Levin forewarned that "there was much work to be done" before Sheikh Mohammed would achieve his four-year goal. The lessons extend beyond thoroughbred racing: No matter how much money is spent, you can't always buy victory. And it's hard to miss the contrast between the self-assured sheikh and War Emblem's owner, Prince Salman, who hired racing experts and let them make the decisions — all the way to the winner's circle. 

Letters to a Young Golfer. By Bob Duval with Carl Vigeland (Basic Books, 163 pages, $22).

Just in time for Father's Day comes this short collection from Bob Duval, golf teacher, Senior PGA Tour player — and father of PGA Tour star David Duval. This quick read is part golf instruction, part guidance on how to live life, and mostly about a man's relationship with his son, his family and his friends.

Duval preaches a gospel of optimism, self-confidence, learning from failure and perseverance. "I guess the moral of this story is to believe in yourself and give whatever it is you dream of a chance." Enjoy the trip, and the people around you.

Dewey Knudson is copy chief of SportsBusiness Journal.

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