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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 27 February 2021
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Johnny Ward: Dubai's missing princess forces racing to face some uncomfortable truths

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, father of missing Princess Latifa, has long been one of the sport’s great spenders.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at Royal Ascot in 2019.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at Royal Ascot in 2019.
Image: Mike Egerton

RACING IS NOT alone in its ability to think little or nothing about the ethics of how the sport is funded, though one wonders was there a little deviation in that regard on Tuesday evening.

BBC Panorama’s broadcast The Missing Princess revealed secretly recorded videos from Princess Latifa, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, and long one of racing’s great spenders.

In the shocking documentary, Princess Latifa claimed to be held “hostage” in Dubai by her father. Videos illustrate she was crouched against the wall in a bathroom, but months ago she lost contact on WhatsApp with her friends, who have no idea about her welfare now.

There is an Irish element to the story: our former President, Mary Robinson, travelled to meet Princess Latifa on the request of Sheikh Mohammed’s sixth wife, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein. Latifa says in the documentary she was released for a few hours from her captivity to have lunch with the pair of women, photographs of which were since used by the UAE regime to illustrate the Sheikh’s daughter’s apparent wellbeing.

Robinson told Panorama: “I was misled, initially by my good friend Princess Haya, because she was misled. Haya began to explain that Latifa had quite a serious bipolar problem.”

Last year, the High Court in London found that Sheikh Mohammed “ordered and orchestrated” the abduction and forced return to Dubai of Princess Latifa twice, in 2002, and again in 2018. In April 2019 Princess Haya fled to Britain, taking her two children with her.

As a racing fan, perhaps most unsettling of all watching a traumatic documentary was the footage of Masar’s 2018 Derby triumph, the 16/1 chance providing Godolphin with its first Derby win, a spectacular failure given that Sheikh Mohammed’s first winner in Britain had been some 41 years earlier.

Videos showed Queen Elizabeth II congratulating the Sheikh, broadcaster Matt Chapman bravely interviewing him in the parade ring despite the presence of his entourage, and the racecourse PA raising his voice to congratulate him on the tannoy to warm applause from the Epsom crowd.

Sheikh Mohammed smiled on that sunny day at Epsom like a man without a world’s care, unlike his daughter, who – according to her video messages aired by Panorama – had been drugged and sent back to Dubai after a yacht on which she was attempting to flee was taken over by Indian special forces. During this time, Latifa allegedly pleaded that she was seeking asylum and that the operation by Indian forces was in violation of international law. The Indian authorities have never issued a statement on what happened.

Little is said about Sheikh Mohammed, though it is understood Queen Elizabeth II since refuses to be photographed in public with him.

This is a pretty grotesque look for racing at a time when the sport’s funding is in the spotlight with a general clamour to clamp down on gambling. The British Gambling Commission has warned of the potentially “disastrous” unintended consequences for racing of the proposals for stringent new affordability checks to tackle problem gambling online, including a proposal to impose a threshold on net monthly gambling loss at as little as £100, leading to customers having to provide evidence they could afford to lose more.

Nevin Truesdale and Martin Cruddace, the chief executives of the Jockey Club and Arena Racing Company respectively, have said the true cost could be colossal, with Cruddace outlining a worst-case scenario of £100 million to the Racing Post.

With a gambling regulator likely in place in Ireland later this year, what happens in Britain will be keenly observed here, but racing’s effective reliance on punters losing money that they cannot afford illustrates just how perilous its funding structure is in this part of the world.

And that is not to mention Arab oil wealth wasted on a sport that tends to ensure a dismal return on investments. “No individual is bigger than racing itself, so they say,” wrote the Guardian’s Greg Wood last year, “but Sheikh Mohammed comes mighty close.”

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The recent death of the benevolent Saudi Prince, Khalid Abdullah, was another shock to the sport at a time when prize-money in Britain is perhaps worse than it has ever been. Prize money at Britain’s top ten flat races last summer fell to just £3.8m, according to data provided by the British Horseracing Authority, the industry regulator, a 63% fall from the £10.3m offered at the same races last year.

Something, clearly, has to give.

***

The pandemic, of course, has worsened prize-money woes, and Cheltenham is approaching like a train would a platform usually heaving but now manned only by a bloke with a whistle. The Arkle seems the most exciting race of the lot on paper and Allmankind did his chance no harm with another rampant performance at Warwick Monday.

The ground probably blunted his speed a bit and he takes on both Shishkin and Energumene next month but I am surprised how big he remains in the betting with William Hill. He has been nothing short of sensational so far and Energumene will not surely appreciate the drying terrain, unlike the selection.

Recommendation (scale 1-5)

Allmankind to win Arkle

1pt each-way 8/1

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Johnny Ward

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