Article by Tony Morris

Tony Morris will contribute monthly features to www.juddmonte.com. If you have a query relating to historic events, horses or racing personalities, or want his view on any aspect of Flat racing and breeding, past or present (with the exception of advice on matings), write to tony.morris@mail.com with your request.


My thanks to emailer Gerry Childs for suggesting the topic for this month’s article.  He is intrigued by the fact that H H Aga Khan III sold all three of his 1930s Derby winner to America, and wonders whether those sales constituted a major loss to European breeding. It’s an interesting thought, worth looking at in some detail.

The Aga Khan entered racing in 1921, when he commissioned George Lambton to select him some yearlings at auction. To say that he found success early would be a serious understatement. In 1922 he had the best two-year-old filly in England in Cos; in 1923 he had both the best two-year-old colt (Diophon) and the best two-year-old filly (Mumtaz Mahal). In 1924 he led the list of winning owners for the first time, his successes including a 2000 Guineas with Diophon and a St Leger with Salmon-Trout.  

A major player as an owner from the start, the Aga soon featured significantly as a breeder as well, but he was already selling some home-bred yearlings by 1926. One he bred and sold in the following year, Taj Mah, won the 1000 Guineas in 1929; it was not until the last year of his life, 1957, that his own colours were carried to victory in that Classic. Distinguished rival breeders such as the 17th Earl of Derby, Marcel Boussac and Federico Tesio invariably raced the stock they bred, but his occasional departures from that plan made him different. There would come a time when cynics looked on him as principally an up-market horse dealer.

When he came into racing the Aga stated that his main objective was to lead in a Derby winner, and he aimed enthusiastically at the target, often with more than one representative on the day; inside fifteen years as an owner he had achieved his goal three times, thanks to Blenheim (1930), Bahram (1935) and Mahmoud (1936).

Blenheim, a 4,100gns yearling purchase from Lord Carnarvon, lined up alongside home-bred stablemate Rustom Pasha, and the story goes that the Aga mistook the one for the other in the race, cheering for Rustom Pasha when that colt was retreating and Blenheim was delivering the challenge that resulted in his victory. It was hard to know just how good Blenheim was. All four of his wins as a two-year-old had been over five furlongs, and a jarred tendon during his preparation for the Eclipse Stakes meant that he was not seen out again after the Derby, his only start at a mile and a half. The official handicapper made him the third-best three-year-old of 1930, 1lb behind Press Gang and the St Leger winner Singapore.

Blenheim was a son of Blandford, as was Bahram, the home-bred who compiled an undefeated nine-race career, being the recognised champion of his generation at two and three, hero of the 1935 Triple Crown, and the most accomplished of all the horses bred or owned by the Aga Khan. He was probably at least 8lb superior to Blenheim and a similar margin ahead of Blenheim’s son Mahmoud, the Aga’s third Derby hero.

Mahmoud’s racing career was similar to Blenheim’s in some respects. As a two-year-old he won three sprint events and at three his only victory came in the Derby. Beaten only a short head in the 2000 Guineas, he was reckoned a doubtful stayer when Epsom came along, but on ground like a paved road he scored in record time from his better-fancied stable companion Taj Akbar. After the Derby he finished a well-beaten second to Rhodes Scholar in the St James’s Palace Stakes, but reached a respectable third place in the St Leger.

The Aga Khan was a popular figure on the Turf, not least with racegoers for the open, almost childlike delight he expressed on the occasions of his big race successes. When he had a public falling-out with his trainer, Dick Dawson, in 1931 and immediately removed all his horses from the Whatcombe yard, his actions seemed out of character, but who could know what that spat was all about? It failed to dent the Aga’s image.

But industry insiders and the general public alike were never going to feel quite so well disposed to him after the controversy that erupted in July 1936. Just a month after Mahmoud, from Blenheim’s second crop, had won the Derby, the Aga sold his sire to an American syndicate for £45,000. Blenheim had been standing in France since his retirement from racing, patronised by leading French, British and Italian breeders. And many had made bookings to him for the 1937 and 1938 seasons, having been assured that he would remain at Marly La Ville. In fact, his owner had been negotiating with the Americans over a sale since December 1935; there had been much unseemly haggling over the terms and the price – the latter naturally being raised after Mahmoud’s Derby.

The image of the genial owner and supposed staunch supporter of European breeding was suddenly demolished; instead he was seen as a hard-headed businessman with an eye to the main chance, all too ready to pocket what he could extract from the Yanks. Four years later, with Europe at war, his detractors had further cause to view him in that light. In July, having completed his fifth stud season at Egerton, Bahram was sold to an American syndicate for £40,000, and in September it was announced that Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney had purchased Mahmoud for £20,000. The grey had served just four seasons at Egerton; his first crop were only two years old.

Of course, an owner was perfectly entitled to do anything he liked with his property, so long as it was legal, but these transactions were perceived as a betrayal by the Aga’s fellow breeders. Lord Derby, his chief rival on the British Turf, made no secret of the hatred he felt for the man who was now domiciled in neutral Switzerland and evidently doubted that the Allies would prevail over the Nazis. Derby was not the only prominent Jockey Club figure who wanted him stripped of his honorary membership.

Blenheim, Bahram and Mahmoud were all sold before it was possible to assess their merits as sires with real conviction, and it is still anybody’s guess what they might have achieved if they had remained in Europe. The one most proven was Blenheim, with a Derby winner already on his cv, but he left one better than Mahmoud in Donatello, a star in Italy whose only defeat came in the Grand Prix de Paris, and he came to England to earn great renown as sire of such as Alycidon and Crepello, both themselves destined to become champion sires.

Blenheim, to nobody’s surprise, became an important sire in the States, with a Triple Crown hero in Whirlaway and a Kentucky Derby winner in Jet Pilot among his progeny. But Whirlaway proved a poor sire and Jet Pilot did not excel in that role, and in the long term the best of Blenheim as a male line influence was Europe-based in the form of those Donatello sons.

Bahram was the one whose departure was understably most deplored; an unbeaten Triple Crown winner commanded the utmost respect, many believing that he would feature as significantly in his second career as he had in his first. When Turkhan gave him a success in the St Leger a few months after his sale there was an early reason to lament his loss, and among the younger stock he left behind were a yearling and a foal who would become notable achievers, respectively Big Game and Persian Gulf. They helped to reinforce the belief that Bahram would have wielded much more influence if he had stayed in Europe, as did the fact that he proved such a dire disappointment in the States that he was eventually exiled to Argentina.

By contrast, Mahmoud did the Americans proud. Whereas Blenheim’s one season at the head of the sires’ list (1941) owed much to Whirlaway, his grey son proved a major achiever over a long period. He was the champion sire of 1946 and the champion broodmare sire of 1957; his overall record of 17 per cent stakes winners to foals underlined his status as an outstanding progenitor. While his male line did not flourish for long, he was destined to feature through his daughters in the pedigrees of countless celebrities.

Of the stock Mahmoud left in Europe, two daughters stood out. Majideh, an Aga Khan-bred, won the Irish 1000 Guineas and Irish Oaks, and she achieved distinction as a broodmare on both sides of the Atlantic. Her daughter Masaka won the 1000 Guineas, Oaks and Irish Oaks, and her son Gallant Man was an exceptional performer in the Stakes, with a Belmont Stakes and a Jockey Club Gold Cup among his triumphs.

Boudoir, from her sire’s first crop, was a minor winner in Ireland, before her transfer to the States, where she became the dam of the talented Your Host, whose own stud career was notable for the mighty five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso.


Tony Morris has been writing about racing and breeding for over 50 years, contributing to numerous publications at home and abroad. He is the author or co-author of several books, was named Racing Journalist of the Year in 1990, and in 2010 received the TBA's highest award, the Devonshire Bronze, for his 'outstanding contribution to the British breeding industry. He has travelled widely, attending race meetings and bloodstock sales in various countries, and has been privileged to see many of the best horses and meet many of the most prominent personalities in the industry over the last half-century.

Date: 02 April 2014