Carson salutes ‘gentleman’ Sheikh Hamdan and recalls the golden years

Willie Carson described Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s death as a “gigantic loss” for the racing industry, as he recounted the almost endless list of big-race successes he enjoyed in the famous blue and white colours.

Carson enjoyed a long spell as retained rider for the influential owner-breeder, who has died, aged 75, partnering many of his most brilliant performers.

The former champion recalled how Sheikh Hamdan had changed the course of his own career, and that of Major Dick Hern – the trainer who masterminded the campaigns of such luminaries as Nashwan and Dayjur.

“He was a gentleman, a really nice man,” Carson told Sky Sports Racing.

“The lease was not going to be renewed for (Hern’s) West Ilsley stables and Dick was a bit taken aback by that and the first thing he said was ‘I’m retiring’. I thought ‘it looks like I’d better retire as well’.

A triumphant Willie Carson aboard Derby hero Nashwan
A triumphant Willie Carson aboard Derby hero Nashwan (PA)

“That was just coming into our minds at that time, but after riding a piece of work at Newbury racecourse, Angus Gold, Sheikh Hamdan’s racing manager, was there and I first mentioned – it might have been a bit of a joke, but maybe not – ‘why don’t you ask Hamdan if I could be his retained jockey?’ and that’s how it happened.”

Nashwan mopped up a string of headline prizes in the 1989 season, winning the 2000 Guineas, Derby, Eclipse and King George, while Dayjur was an untouchable sprinter a year later – with 1990 also seeing the great mare Salsabil carry all before her.

Carson said: “We had Nashwan, Dayjur, Salsabil – all champions in their own right. They’re the ones that come to mind and Erhaab, of course, who won the Derby.

“We made (the King George) into a sprint that day (Nashwan won) because he had those four Group One races in three months and he shouldn’t have run in the race because he was tired and he never really recovered from that. But what a magnificent mover he was.

“(Dayjur) was the fastest I’ve ever ridden and I would say the fastest anyone has ever ridden.

“When the track record was broken at York by his own horse (Battaash in the Nunthorpe), by a tenth of a second, straight away Hamdan said ‘Dayjur had a headwind’. He didn’t want anything taken away from Dayjur.”

Dayjur famously suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the Breeders’ Cup when snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as he jumped a shadow near the finish.

Carson said: “I don’t really know (how Sheikh Hamdan took the defeat) because I never saw him after the race. I couldn’t believe what had just happened.”

Carson also famously steered a wide path aboard Bahri in the 1995 QEII Stakes at Ascot, racing under the trees in the early stages in search of better ground before sprinting six lengths clear in the straight, a manoeuvre that became known as the ‘Bahri route’.

He said: “I discussed what I was going to do with Richard Hills (rider of the owner’s second-string) on the way out to the paddock and I told Hamdan in the paddock what the plan was. There were 10 seconds, then 20 seconds, of silence and I thought ‘oh dear, I’m getting the sack here’. Then he just said ‘do it’.”

Sheikh Hamdan’s passion for racing spawned the Shadwell breeding empire and Carson was keen to underline his interest in not only events on the track, but also in the paddocks.

Salsabil (right) beat the colts in the Irish Derby
Salsabil (right) beat the colts in the Irish Derby (PA)

He explained: “He was a man who enjoyed not just winning races, he enjoyed the breeding side – he enjoyed knowing about his horses. If there was a really important piece of work before a big race, he’d be ringing up from Dubai to ask how it went, what your feelings were and how the horse was.

“He was interested in the horse. What a brain he had – sharp – but a very compassionate man.

“It’s not just a major loss – it’s a gigantic loss. People in the racing industry will be very sad to hear of his passing, he was possibly one of the biggest well-thought of names worldwide.

“He would try to buy the best horses for his trainers and he was very loyal to anyone who started training for him. He always kept going back and giving them more yearlings.”

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