Of all the books I read in my childhood, none captured my imagination as much as American author Marguerite Henry’s Newbery Medal-winning “King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian.”
Based on a true story, it tells of the journey of an Arabian stallion and his mute Moroccan horseboy, Agba, from the royal stables of Sultan Mulai Ismael (ibn Sharif) to the court of French King Louis XV, and eventually to Newmarket, England.
Intended as a gift for the French king, the stallion, “Sham,” arrives at Versailles in an emaciated and combative state, having been half starved as a result of the ship captain’s swindling and battered by storms on the voyage across the Mediterranean.
Scorned and rejected by the French court, he is sent to pull a kitchen cart — the lowliest of tasks — from which he is rescued by a Quaker from London and brought across the channel to England.
Here, the fortunes of the horse and his boy rise and fall until the Earl of Godolphin purchases Sham, and his true worth is finally recognized, as the sire of fleet-footed horses. For the Godolphin Arabian, as he came to be known, is one of a handful of Arabian stallions who served as progenitors of the modern English thoroughbred.
These noble creatures are the royalty of the horse world, blending the agility and endurance of their Arabian sires with the greater size and strength of the English mares, in a truly winning cross-cultural marriage.
Green metal shutters thrown open onto our Saudi Arabian back garden, with its brave row of sapling eucalyptus trees casting only the faintest of shadows on the hot sand, I lay in my cool, white-walled bedroom and immersed myself in the tale.
As I lived on the margins of a world very like the one occupied by the Moroccan horseboy in the Sultan’s stable, I felt the kind of deep recognition and resonance with my own experience that we always hope to find in books.
I did not have to work hard to conjure the arid landscapes of the Middle East/North Africa — or the marketplaces, mosques and fast of Ramadan that came to life in Henry’s book — as they formed the backdrop of my daily life, near the Asir province town of Khamis Mushayt, in the mountains east of Jeddah.
As did the royal stables.
Each day after school I rode my bike down to “the king’s stables” on our compound, where a member of the Saud dynasty kept horses. As far as I know, the reigning monarch at that time, King Khalid, did not visit once while I was there — he was elderly, suffered from heart ailments and surely had many similar facilities at his disposal, though a well-turned-out boy prince of about my age went there to ride.
My black boys’ bike was purchased in the Khamis souk, where there were none for girls on offer, this being the kingdom in the late 1970s. Riding horses also was considered an activity exclusively for boys, but as I was a Westerner and a child, and as my father, an eye surgeon, had operated on the head groom, who had been kicked in the face by a high-spirited occupant of the stables, special dispensations had been granted.
My favorite horses were Manal, a gentle mare, and Hilal, a feisty gray gelding named for the crescent moon, the symbol of Islam, the religion that surrounded me and enveloped me and sang to me from all directions from the throats of the muezzins.
In the tack room at the end of the stable block, I waited for the wiry grooms to help me saddle up. They sat along a banquette, footsore from the unrelenting physical labor of looking after horses, sipping sweet amber tea from small glasses and watching the day’s horse or camel racing on a grainy black-and-white television.
As the pack sped to the finish on some distant track, they would leap out of their seats, driven by a passionate interest that lifted them up out of the lowly realm of the stable hand. As denizens of the world of horse racing — the so-called Sport of Kings — they were part of something bigger. Something magical and enchanting.
In the Desert Kingdom, as elsewhere, royalty and horse racing are deeply intertwined and troublingly co-dependent. The billion-dollar global horse-racing industry is steeped in the kind of glamour that only royals and gleaming, million-dollar horses can offer. And it feeds on romantics like me, like the hardworking grooms, thrilling us and drawing us in, even as it reinforces and perpetuates the social stratification of the feudal past.
On the blank wall of my bedroom, I had pinned a photo of Ibn Saud, the progenitor of the Saud dynasty, and his cavalry, cut from a magazine. I used to study this picture, examining every detail: the tightly clustered band of sprightly Arabian horses, bearing righteous white-robed riders, banners aloft, moving rapidly through the desert in a cloud of dust, like a perfectly choreographed scene from a film.
In my youthful eyes, Saud was a king of royal bearing: a man fighting for country and cause. A horseman who was the direct ancestor of Khalid, the beneficent monarch who had given me permission to ride at his stables, albeit by proxy. I felt deeply connected to the kingdom’s ruling family, in the manner of a loyal subject.
But while I bought into this romantic story, this Arabia Felix of falconers and desert warriors, my parents were more wary. Expats were routinely deported by the emissaries of the ruling regime for infractions such as brewing alcohol — they were secretly guilty of that — and it was considered prudent to have a place to go, in case the religious police, or “red caps,” knocked.
So they purchased a property in the Suffolk town of Newmarket in the United Kingdom, intending it to serve as a summer home and potential bolt-hole from the Saudi Kingdom. They settled on Newmarket for purely practical purposes — it was close to the city of Cambridge, but less costly, so they could afford a bigger, nicer place. But when they returned after closing the deal, I was overcome by the serendipity of it all. Because this was Newmarket, after all, the legendary Horse Racing Capital of the World.
I had read all about it in Henry’s book.
There are gaps in the true-life story of the Godolphin Arabian that Henry has fleshed out admirably through research and imagination, aided by a set of vivid illustrations by Wesley Dennis. But the essential, unembellished elements are broadly understood: The Arabian stallion was likely brought to the French court from North Africa as a gift and was later acquired by a horse dealer and brought to England.
What is not in dispute, however, is that the Arabian steed ended his days at the stud farm of the second Earl of Godolphin in the Gog Magog Hills of Cambridgeshire, a dozen miles from Newmarket, and that he sired a string of extraordinary racehorses, whose highly prized descendants continue to win races at Newmarket’s two famed courses, the Rowley Mile and the July Course, and around the world.
Newmarket’s association with the horse-racing industry dates to the days of James I, who constructed a palace in the town in the early 1600s, and continues to this day, with Queen Elizabeth II a regular occupant of the Rowley Mile’s royal box. (During a college-era summer job with the catering company that services the racecourse, I was once ushered in for a discreet peek at the glass-enclosed space, which affords the royal party a front and center view of the finish line.)
It was King Charles II, “the Merry Monarch,” who established the first racing stables in the town, spending the spring and summer months in Newmarket with his retinue and effectively ruling the country from it. According to local lore, he had a tunnel leading from the palace to the nearby cottage of his mistress, Nell Gwyn.
Another royal mistress, Lily Langtry, lover of the Prince of Wales — Edward VII when he was later crowned king — features prominently in the town’s history and also in the story of my family, as our garden occupies the site where her racing stables once stood. Over the years, metal detectors and gardening projects have turned up horseshoe nails and Victorian ha’pennies in the flower beds.
Still heavily reliant on the racing industry, Newmarket has long served as a playground for the royals, and not just the British sovereigns: The United Arab Emirates’ Maktoum family quietly own swaths of the town — almost half of it, by some accounts.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s mega-million-pound properties in Newmarket include Dalham Hall, a sprawling stud farm once owned by Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist who founded Rhodesia and the DeBeers diamond company. (Statues of Rhodes have been the target of an international campaign, “Rhodes Must Fall,” that began in South Africa in 2015 to remove markers celebrating colonial legacy, which gained added traction with the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.)
Even before the present Pandora Papers exposures — which revealed that Sheikh Mohammed had used three secretive offshore companies to augment his already staggering wealth — the British tabloids had the Dubai ruler well in their sights.
There was the matter of his estranged wife, Princess Haya, and daughter, Princess Latifa, with the U.K.’s High Court of Justice in 2020 determining that Sheikh Mohammed had ordered his daughter’s abduction and instigated an intimidation campaign against his wife. A subsequent judgment, released Oct. 6, showed he had used Pegasus spyware to hack the phones of Haya and her circle.
Before this, there was the Godolphin doping scandal of 2013, in which 11 horses from the Sheikh’s massive multinational Godolphin enterprise, which has offices in Newmarket, were found to have been injected with performance enhancing drugs.
Godolphin. It seems that I was not the only one to have been caught up in the seductive power of the origin story of the fabled Arabian horse, linking it to my own.
“Godolphin is the expression of a passion. It began with one man’s passion, and it continues with one team’s success” reads the “about us” blurb on the organization’s website, Godolphin.com. “As a boy, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed was captivated by the power, elegance, speed and grace of horses. As a young man, he and his friends rode bareback races on the sands of Jumeirah Beach.”
“The love of horses is in the DNA of Dubai,” it goes on to say.
The same could be said, of course, for the United Kingdom and for the British royals, who also have a well-documented love of horses. (Not to mention a similar track record of scandals — from the adulterous revelations of the Charles-Diana marriage — “Squidgygate” and “Camillagate” — to Prince Harry’s Nazi uniform costume party faux pas, Prince Andrew’s questionable ties to Jeffrey Epstein and the Countess of Wessex’s influence peddling, to name just a few.)
The queen is an accomplished rider and avid reader of the Racing Post, and her horses have won hundreds of races, bringing in close to $10 million in prize money. This seems like a lot to the average person, but to the queen — one of the richest women in the world with an estimated net worth of $600 million — it is mere pocket change. In the world of racing, at least, she and Sheikh Mohammed are clearly kindred spirits.
The bond between the two was cemented in bricks and mortar on Nov. 3, 2016, when a helicopter carrying the queen landed on the other side of the garden fence from the Newmarket property where my mother still resides. Out stepped the reigning monarch, in pale pink, to unveil a statue of herself with a thoroughbred mare and foal — a “gift from the town” funded by Sheikh Mohammed. The band played and townsfolk turned out in force, proudly waving Union Jacks.
The festive event, also a milestone for the queen as it marked her 90th year of life, was one for the history books and highlighted Newmarket’s royal connections. But it also raised some worrying questions — namely, how to reconcile the glamour that underpins the town’s links with the royals with a clear-eyed understanding of the instability and imbalance that same association perpetuates.
Newmarket’s horse-racing industry relies heavily on the patronage of the very rich. And not just the very rich, mind you. As award-winning English author and sports journalist Laura Thompson, who lived for a time in Newmarket and has written several books on the racing industry, notes in her book, “Newmarket: From James I to the Present Day,” this requires a whole other level of wealth.
“Patronage, to be truly effective, requires what is tantamount to infinite wealth,” she writes. “That is what the Maktoum family of Dubai has and that is why, today, it can very nearly support Newmarket on its own, holding up each corner of the town.”
“Rich is not enough. Richissime is what is needed,” she adds, using a French term to describe the super rich.
The knowledge that Newmarket and the global racing industry are propped up and underwritten by the international oligarchy is troubling, to say the least. Yet horse racing is in the town’s DNA, giving it its distinctive character and identity.
The town is one of the few places where racehorses are bred, trained, raced and sold. The British Bloodstock Agency and Tattersalls, the racehorse auctioneers, are based there. The racing industry is the town’s lifeblood, bringing in racegoers and horse-dealers and supporting infrastructure, and providing a livelihood to vets, farriers, jockeys, stable hands and a multitude of others. The Jockey Club owns the flat grassland that surrounds the town, which has curbed suburban creep.
On a personal level, I have appreciated the town’s ties with the Gulf states. Many of the “traveling lads” from the Newmarket stables have accompanied horses to races in the Middle East, reversing the journey of the Godolphin’s groom. And catching occasional sight of Gulf Arabs in the town has made me feel the various parts of my life in the East and West are indeed interconnected, part of one whole.
Yet it sometimes feels like a house of cards: Could Newmarket survive without richissime?
Or maybe survival is not the point. It has endured for hundreds of years, after all. Maybe the point is that the racing industry’s reliance on the wealthiest 1% has perpetuated a class system that is once again coming under popular assault. It is a business model reminiscent of the “Upstairs, Downstairs” of a bygone era that is romanticized by the 1970s television series of that name as well as the more recent “Downton Abbey.” Many look back on this era with sentimentality, failing to appreciate it was built on the backs of the poor and — in this case — on the backs of beasts whose very existence is almost always determined as subservient to humanity’s whims of leisure and entertainment.
So where does this leave me, the anti-monarchist, who was once a girl on a bicycle pedaling to the royal stables along the sandy byways, dreaming of horses and pretending the metal beneath me was the rippling flesh of an Arabian steed? Or Sheikh Mohammed, racing bareback on the beach? The queen, studying the Racing Post? Or Agba, the slim, brown-skinned horseboy of Henry’s tale?
Beneath it all — the backbreaking toil and emotional toll of caring for horses, the money and the monarchs — there is a persistent dream, deceptive in its simplicity.
It is the dream of a flat, open landscape — green turf or golden desert sand — and a sturdy mount beneath us. A thrilling charge for the horizon, fresh air filling our lungs. A feeling of both utter abandon and complete harmony, a sensation like flying.
A moment when we transcend our mortal selves and the various constraints of our lives and become truly the kings and queens of the wind.
“When Allah created the horse, he said to the wind, ‘I will that a creature proceed from thee. Condense thyself.’ And the wind condensed itself, and the result was a horse,” a wizened storyteller tells the horseboy in Henry’s book.
“The words danced in Agba’s head. … He told the words over and over in his mind, until suddenly the stable walls faded away and Agba was riding the South Wind. And there was nothing to stop him. No palace walls. No trees. Nor hedges. Nor rivers. Only white clouds to ride through, and a blue vaulted archway, and the wind for a mount.”