LONDON: The past 15 months have been an uncertain and unsettling period for horse racing.
Similar to all sports, it could not escape the chaos brought on by the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
But few sights will be welcomed more by those involved in the sport than horses bursting out the gates in front a crowd, albeit limited, at the Derby at Epsom Downs Racecourse on Saturday.
Despite occasional detractors over its 240-year history, horse racing’s blue riband remains the most prestigious British Classic on the calendar and few races are so ingrained in the collective consciousness of the public like the Derby.
For long-time trainer Paul Cole from the hugely successful Whatcombe estate, it is still the “greatest” of the Classics to win, and he should know.
This year’s running marks the 30th anniversary of a glorious Saudi triumph in the 1991 race, when Generous kickstarted what would turn out to be a remarkable summer by romping home for Cole’s sole win in the race and the first and only victory for Saudi owner Prince Fahd bin Salman.
Cole called the victory a “wonderful thing” for himself and his family, but also for the prince, with whom he had a long and fruitful connection — both personally and professionally.
Cole, who since March last year has held a joint training license at Whatcombe with his son Oliver, said training Generous to victory three decades ago was “fantastic” because he was doing it for someone like Prince Fahd who “really appreciated racing” and it meant a lot.
“He was dedicated to people around him, very charming with fantastic manners. He put his money into enjoying his horses, and luckily I was involved for 20-odd years with his attitude of excitement, fun, and trying to get a good horse.
“He loved people, he loved horses and he loved the excitement. He was a big, big influence in my life,” he added.
The prince had been introduced to horse racing by his father-in-law, the late Prince Khalid bin Abdullah who owned the now iconic Juddmonte Farms operation in Newmarket and who also notched victories for Saudi Arabia in the Derby on Quest for Fame (1990), Commander in Chief (1993) and Workforce (2010).
Prince Khalid connected Prince Fahd with Cole and the two bought Whatcombe in Oxfordshire together in 1987, and while Cole was already an established trainer, it was Prince Fahd who raised the standard at the estate.
“I was going on very well, but without him it wouldn’t have got quality, so he provided the quality and Anthony Penfold was his manager and we used to buy the horses together,” Cole said.
The British trainer remained Prince Fahd’s go-to man until his passing in 2001, something which Cole said, “took the heart out of the (Whatcombe) operation,” adding “it was a terrible shock and was difficult to get going again.”
Despite the tinge of sadness, Cole still looks back on the day with fond memories and believes the Derby remains the toughest test for all three-year-old middle-distance colts.
He said: “What you’ve got to do is line it up with other races, and the only race, I think, that you could line it up with is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The Arc is a great race, whereas the Derby’s the best of the generation — it’s more of a test.
“The English Derby is a test of everything, a test of speed, it’s a test of stamina, you have to be able to handle the corners and take the pressure of getting ready quite early in the year.”
And, for Cole, it is the race every trainer dreams of winning, given how highly it is regarded not just within the sport but even outside it.
“It’s such a fantastic race, and for the population, even if one doesn’t know which end of the horse is which, the Derby is still of interest,” he added.
Saudi race fans may look out for the Ed Dunlop-trained John Leeper, sired by the great Frankel, owned and bred by Prince Khalid at Juddmonte. But hopes of another Arab-owned winner in this year’s race will rest on the UAE, with three Godolphin charges in Adayar, Hurricane Lane, and One Ruler.
Third Realm also runs for Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al-Maktoum and Youth Spirit goes for Emirati Ahmad Al-Shaikh.
But regardless of which horse crosses the line first at Epsom on Saturday afternoon, their victory will be etched into history and become another chapter in what Cole calls “the best race in the world.”