Who is interested by the races, knows the famous green and red silks of His Highness the Aga Khan. His impact on the history of racing is considerable. The majority of the thoroughbreds that run on our tracks across the world, have a little – or a lot – of blood out of this princely bloodstock. But before becoming a main actor of the thoroughbred stud-book history, it is with the Purebred Arabians that the racing odyssey started.

The Imam of the Ismailis

Ismaelism is a branch of Shia Islam which started in the 8th century. The Aga Khan Ist was born in 1804 at Kahak in Iran. He was the 45th Imam of the Ismailis. At the start of the 1950s, the Aga Khan III published his memoirs. William Somerset Maugham had written the preface. He explained: “The Aga Khan is descended from the Prophet Mohammed through his

daughter Fatima (…) His grandfather, also known as Aga Khan, by inheritance

spiritual head of the Ismailis, was a Persian nobleman (…) Smarting under an insult that had been put upon him he took up arms against a later Shah, Mohammed by name, was worsted and forced to make his escape, attended by a few horsemen, through the deserts of Baluchistan to Sind. There he raised a troop of light horses and after various vicissitudes eventually reached Bombay with his two hundred horsemen, his relations, clients and supporters. He acquired a vast estate upon which he built palaces.” Since 1844, it is in India under British control that the Aga Khan Ist was Imam. His action was made of theology, representation of his community among the British but also social and economic development of his faithful. Ismaelism is a minority branch of Islam, but influent politically and economically. This community is spread over Asia, Northern America, Africa and Europe. Karim Aga Khan IV is the one we currently name as the Aga Khan. He is the 49th Imam and descends from the paternal line of Aga Khan Ist.

Races in the good times of British India

In India, the Aga Khan Ist and his family developed an important racing stable. In his memoirs, the Aga Khan III said: “My grandfather, in Poona like in Bombay, led the life of a recluse, living nearly like in the Middle Ages, and adopting a way of life which disappeared a long time ago. He brought back from Persia the aristocratic hobbies of the time (…) We were provided with sumptuous racing stables, we bred hounds and kept looking for the best hawks from Iran and Iraq.” In "Une tradition de course et d’élevage. Les chevaux de l’Aga Khan", Philip Jodidio explains: “Documents testify that the Aga Khan [editor's note: Ist] offered a reward of 2500 rupees to the winner of an Arabian horse race over more than three kilometers and a gold cup to the winner of a four kilometer race.” The Major-General William Tweedie explained in 1894 in "The Arabian Horse": “This is how most of the invincible, if not all of them (…) made the Aga Khan silks the terror of races in West India, from around 1850 to 1880 (…) We can always find some of the best blood of Arabia in his stables (…) Lads who learnt how to ride in Epsom could wear his silks and ride horses bred in the rocky valley of Najd.’

From where did his horses come from?

For centuries, Iraq was the true heart of breeding and market place for Arabian horses. It is also in this country that the ones out of Saudi Arabia and Syria were brought to be sold. For years, the Iraqi noblemen bought the best Arabian horses as possible. Selected on the local racecourses and bred in real fields, like we can find in Iraq, gained in height and model: they became real racehorses. After developing their own bloodstock, the Iraqis started to sell these horses. Turkish, Europeans, Lebanese and Indian merchants came to Bagdad, Mossoul and Damas. This market represented up to thousands of animals per year. Mohammad Al-Nujaifi explains in "The Purebred Arabians of Iraq": “In the 18th and 19th centuries horses were exported via Basra to the British colonies in India and Ceylon (…) for racing, polo and hunting (…) Those for racing were sold at much higher prices only affordable by the British elite and wealthy Indian families (…) Iraq was colonized by the British in 1918 and it was they who started the concept of modern racing [editor's note: races existed since 300 years in the country but under a more traditional way]. Iraq now became an even more important source of prize horses for export (…) Horses exported from other parts of the Arab world had to come to Iraq to be certified by the British.” In this excellent book, Mohammad Al-Nujaifi explains how a certain number of males and mares came back to stud in Iraq after a good career in India. The races in India for Purebred Arabians stopped with the Second World War, when the local owners started to privilege thoroughbreds.

His first steps on the English turf

It is Aga Khan III, the grandfather of the current Imam of the Ismaelis, who started to run his horses in Europe, when his Indian stables were still active. On the Aga Khan Studs’ website, we can read: “In the summer of 1921, the Aga Khan approached the Honourable George Lambton to ask him if he would take some horses (…) had to decline as he had a full yard. However, he agreed to buy some yearlings at the forthcoming sales. Lambton was instructed to concentrate on fillies, unless particularly attracted by one or two colts. (…) There was one very special purchase at 7,700 guineas –a filly by Tracery out of Blue Tit. The Aga Khan showed just how much she meant to him by naming her Teresina after his beloved wife, the Begum Teresa Aga Khan, mother of Prince Aly Khan and grandmother of the present Aga Khan. Teresina more than lived up to expectations. She was a filly of great versatility that was 2nd in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot over a mile and in the Eclipse Stakes over 10 furlongs, and won four races including the Goodwood Cup (2 miles 5 furlongs). In 1930, Teresina’s daughter Theresina gave her owner-breeder his first Irish fillies’ Classic. From the same Doncaster sales ring came another fine filly, Cos for 5,000 guineas. This handsome brown filly by Flying Orb from the stud of Lord d’Abernon, British Ambassador to Berlin, played a vital role both on the track and at the farm. At Lambton’s suggestion the Aga Khan had sent his new purchases to Richard Dawson at Whatcombe in Berkshire. By the time of Royal Ascot, he was still waiting for a winner. But Dawson was aware of the ability of Cos (...) He introduced her in the Queen Mary Stakes, one of the most prestigious races for two-year-old fillies. There she sprinted home to register the Aga Khan’s first English racing success in 1922.”

Silks that changed the face of races

Without the contribution of entities who started out with Purebred Arabians –like the Aga Khan yesterday and Al Shaqab Racing today– thoroughbred races would never have acquired their current excellent level. The Aga Khan silks won for example the Epsom Derby ten times since 1931 and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe six times since 1948. The Aga Khan Studs bred and sold a lot of top thoroughbred stallions, like Blenheim (Champion sire in 1941 in the United States), Mahmoud (Champion sire in 1946 in the United States), Blushing Groom, Nasrullah, Darshaan… Today, Siyouni is one of the best young stallions in Europe.