By Tony Stafford
Do you remember where you were twelve years ago next Wednesday? Like the day John F Kennedy was killed in Dallas, I remember it well. I’d just called my daughter from the Marriott Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky to wish her a happy birthday and then settled down to write my St Leger preview for the Daily Telegraph.
I was in a hurry, as we (the Thoroughbred Corporation team) were due at Keeneland sales for the first session of the big-money September yearling auction. Then, just as I was getting into my preview, the phone rang and my mate Jack Rusbridge, who was Prince Ahmed Salman’s “security” man for many years said: “Are you watching the TV?”
I put it on and was immediately confronted with the first image of a plane flying into one of the World Trade Centre towers in New York. They, the entourage, went off to the sales complex a couple of miles around New Circle Road, while I, stunned as events unfolded, tried to complete my morning’s work – I’d already sent over the tips and story on the next day’s racing back home.
I bring this event up not just because we’re once again back at the weekend preceding my daughter’s birthday, the St Leger, in which my boss Raymond Tooth has an interesting runner in Great Hall, and the sales, at which sadly I am no longer even a peripheral participant.
It was always my favourite trip. Veterans of even longer and more consistent experience of Kentucky tend to moan about how dull it is, but I was always entranced and went to great lengths to get there. Luckily the paper never minded getting my stuff on the sales as long as someone else paid for it, so while I built up my contacts and air-miles, they were happy.
No, it was randomly noticing a recent listing for the film “102 minutes that changed America”, which I sat down to watch two weeks ago, that prompted this column. “Nine-Eleven”, like all horrific events that become well-trod is now not much more than a sound bite. “Oh yeah”, we might say, “terrible wasn’t it?” but until you recall the minute on minute process than turned two massive buildings, first into infernos, and then into falling dominoes in which thousands of innocent people were incinerated, the true horror has been emasculated.
I toddled along to the sales, maybe half an hour after the main party, to be told the sale is off for the day. I got back to the Marriott, and then, while first we ordered lunch and drinks in the bar, I sat for hours in the company of Michael Tabor and Jeremy Noseda, all of us gripped by the images on the little television in the bar.
The sale continued the next day, and the Prince, as a senior member of the Saudi Arabian Royal family, was regularly asked for comments, given that the assumption was that this was an Asama bin Laden-inspired attack. Always contrite, the Prince, who unusually had asked me to stay close to him for the day, struck the right note, but as the day ended and we were off to dinner at one of Lexington’s better restaurants, the mood seemed to change.
Someone, it seemed, had suggested that the Prince, a son of the senior Minister Prince Salman, was “related to bin Laden”. This was greeted with such ferocity that after that evening, he was never seen outside the hotel. Indeed until the Sunday, five days later, he remained in his suite with a 24-hour two-man (three shifts) detail made up from local police officers.
Things were not improved when a young man, the son of his recently deceased brother Prince Fahd, was flown from his college in Florida where he was studying, along with a college friend, in a small plane to Blue Grass Airport. The boy’s mother had appealed to her brother-in-law Ahmed to get him out as things down there were getting heated. Their flight was directly in contravention of the blanket ban on flying, and resulted in a massive FBI investigation. In the middle of all that, we tried to carry on.
By midweek everyone wanted out and Michael Tabor was keen to get back to England as he had Milan running in the St Leger. He got out on the Friday, his plane being filled for the most part with trainers. The story ended well for him when Milan won at Doncaster. I was less lucky, my request for a lift being one too late. “Sorry, Tony, we’re full up”, he said, “You should have asked me yesterday.”
John Magnier won the “get out of Lexington first” award by securing his flight on the Thursday, proving once again that his influence extends far beyond horse racing and breeding. As to my host, his plane was finally allowed out on the Sunday flying back to Luton. Reckoning that the authorities were going to keep the boys there for a bit longer, I found a scheduled flight to London via Pittsburgh the same morning and then made my way back to Luton where I found I’d left my driver’s window fully down and had a wet seat all the way home.
Interestingly, I recall that Sheikh Mohammed, at the time the UAE’s Defence Minister was kept waiting either one or two more days. Strange days, and stranger still when a few months later I got a call from a famous American journalist who was investigating whether the Prince had funded bin Laden.
My astonishment was conveyed in a strong answer, but to this day, such is the permanence of articles on the Internet, you can still find the reference to my “flight” on the Prince’s jet. Call up the name “Jack Rusbridge” and you’ll find an article about the same Jack Rusbridge and Anthony John Stafford, two British nationals… Read it if you can be bothered.
Strangely, that proved to be the last September sale ever attended by the Prince. At the time, he had won the last two Triple Crown races, the Preakness and Belmont with Point Given and the following spring War Emblem made it four in a row for him – no Triple Crown though – by winning the Kentucky Derby (my only time I saw the race) and Preakness.
On the first Saturday of June 2002, War Emblem failed to stay the mile and a half trip of the Belmont Stakes and within six weeks the Prince, aged just 43, died in hospital in Riyadh, a death that was as mysterious as it was shocking. That proved the end of a wonderful period of ownership by the only man that truly matched Coolmore, the Maktoum family and his own compatriot Prince Khalid Abdullah.
It was also an abrupt end to my own oblique involvement of the stratosphere end of thoroughbred racing. But the memories of Oath, Royal Anthem, Sharp Cat and the rest, along with the four Triple Crown and multiple Breeders’ Cup race wins are still strong and not even my failing memory can take them away from me.
But as they say, that was then, Great Hall and Raymond Tooth are now. Wish them and Brian Meehan well for Saturday.