“I just don’t want to be a normal owner, I wanted to come into the market a play a major change like His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, and to do that, I had to play on a bigger scale.”
That’s quite a mission statement from Amer Abdulaziz, the founder of Phoenix Thoroughbred, as he talks to me from his base in Dubai. Ambitious too, but it’s a philosophy that has inspired him to set up a type of ownership unique to British racing. It was from this standpoint that the idea grew to set up a fund to give “investors” the full ownership experience.
“Rather than investing in syndication of one horse, they invest into the fund, which has all the products under one roof,” Amer explains. “That includes the stallions, the broodmares, yearlings, weanlings, the flipping of horses, and the racehorses, and to minimize the risk, we focus on the breeding side of things.”
The investment fund is still in its infancy, having only existed for going on a year, but the approach is already yielding results. Several have crossed the finish line first across three continents, including at the Grade 1 level in the United States, a Royal Ascot success, and not to mention the emergence of a potential superstar in Gronkowski. All achievements that the man on the other end of the phone is clearly proud of.
“Mourinho winning (the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes) and Dream Tree winning a Grade 1 in the first seven months of operation gave us great motivation and hunger to be more successful,” Amer said. “It’s also given us the foundation and platform to go and speak to more investors and say to them, ‘Here’s our track record, this is what we do, and these are the returns you can expect after a five-year period.’”
Although a lot of what I’m being told sounds like a businessman making a pitch, there is clearly a love of the sport underlying what the man who grew up in a family of horse breeders is trying to do. That becomes more apparent when he speaks about that day at Ascot with Signora Cabello and her Queen Mary success.
“Winning at Ascot was better than winning any Derby anywhere with all those people from around the world watching, then to finish second with Advertise (in the Group 2 Coventry one day prior) was clearly a great achievement for us,” he said.
This passion for the thoroughbred is further underlined when we relays the tale of his baptism into the sport of kings.
“I’ve been around horses since I was nine years old,” he told me with more than a hint of nostalgia in is voice. “We had a horse farm as well as cows, and at that time, we were breeding pure Arabian horses. It wasn’t until when I went to Berkley that I had my first experience of thoroughbred racing. Golden Gate race track is not that far from the University, so I went due to my love of the horses, and I fell in love with thoroughbred racing there.”
It’s this racing education that helps explain Phoenix’s focus on US racing, even with the horses that they have trained in the UK, but it is by no means the only reason.
“The love is there, but as a fund manager, I have to look at everything,” Amer said. “UK Racing is amazing, it’s prestigious, and we love that. From a financial point of view, though, it’s doesn’t support our model. In America, if you have a bunch of good horses, the prize money is good, so many Group races are there, and you can race your horses 365 days of the year there. It’s the biggest racing market in the world. We’re not, though, neglecting the UK and Europe. As you know, we have invested a lot of money there, and in Australia, as well.”
The more I learn about the inner workings of Phoenix Thoroughbreds, the more impressed and surprised I am by not only the attention to detail, but also its fairly unique approach to the sport.
“We have a committee,” replies Amer as I ask about how hands-on he gets on an everyday basis. “We all sit together to discuss things to come up with what’s best and what needs to be done. I’m involved in the whole process, but I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak. We meet every Monday to cover the important issues to come up with strategies from breeding to marketing and racing, as well as many other things.”
I suspect that Monday’s strategy meeting was a pretty lively one after Gronkowski made his US debut, finding only Triple Crown winner Justify too good at the very highest level in the Belmont Stakes. Having shown only above-average form on the synthetic surfaces in the UK, he emerged as a real superstar in the making that day on the dirt (for which he is bred to be at his best), and it’s a performance that will live long in the memories of those involved at Phoenix.
“I’ll be honest with you” said Amer, whose voice slightly betrayed his excitement about this horse. “As they broke from the gate, I had every confidence in this horse and put to rest any slight worries I might have had. I always believed in this horse, and when I got there (to the US), I told the trainer this horse could change things for Justify; if he comes out and does well, he can win the race. Nobody believed me then, but after he breezed the first time, the trainer was very happy with him and said he was a classy horse. I was pleased with the result and that he proved to be classy.”
That talent is of little doubt now. Big prizes could await in the coming months, with the horse now aiming at the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga, which is the sole focus for now.
Dream Tree holds a special place in the organization’s history as their first Grade 1 winner. After a well-publicised tendon issue that saw her miss the Kentucky Oaks, she’s back on track, and Amer stated, “She’s going to be running in a Group race at Saratoga; we’re still debating that with her trainer and we’re hoping to race her soon.”
The Phoenix wing of influence in the American market is ever-growing, and the latest scheduled to be run under the orange and white silks is Magnificent McCool, set to make his debut this weekend.
“He’s a wonderful horse, you can see that from the trainer every time he breezes,” Amer said. “He breezed amazing yesterday (Sunday).”
The list of top runners grows longer during tour conversation about Phoenix’s top prospects.
“We have a Malibu Moon filly with Bob Baffert, she’s an amazing filly,” Amer said. “We also have Jafar, by Megdalia d’Oro, who’s 3 years old but hasn’t run yet, but he’s got huge potential and he could run in the next two weeks.”
Here in the UK, a rare hot summer was further stoked after a stunning performance from Advertise at Newmarket’s July meeting, put him back in the picture for next year’s first Classic of the season, the 2000 Guineas. There’s no doubt that the powers that run Phoenix think they have a good one their hands.
“That was an amazing run, and I think if had got to the opportunity to get to the front that day, he would have won,” Amer said. “To go from that to win a Group race shows he’s an outstanding horse, and of course a Group 1 is on the agenda for that horse. He’s a potential stallion.”
One horse that, for me, sums up the Phoenix approach to race campaigning is Pocket Dynamo. Amer and his team were quick to dip their hands into the fund to buy the sprinter after he finished second to the Wesley Ward-trained Shang Shang Shang at Royal Ascot and set his sights firmly on winning the new Juvenile Sprint at the Breeders’ Cup. Amer explains that it was on the advice from the colt’s trainer that led them to stump up the funds.
“Robert Cowell trains for us, he spoke highly of the horse, and we didn’t want the horse to leave the UK, so after he ran such a good race, we looked at his race record and thought he would be a good acquisition for the fund, and we hope he’ll go and win a group race for us,” Amer said. “He’ll stay with Robert Cowell. We may take him to France; he’s already qualified for the Breeders’ Cup.”
With more top prospects and an ever-expanding trainer roster in the UK, plus Asharani flying the flag in Australia, all adding to the success so far in the US, it appears that the rising Phoenix is here to stay. Amer may very well get to make good on that mission statement.