Feature Story



Howard Wright - 

Where is Kazakhstan? Not a trick question but the title of a section in the popular BBC2 tea-time quiz show House of Games, which followers of UAE racing in general and Doug Watson’s stable in particular should appreciate even more after the success of Kabirkhan in the Al Maktoum Challenge a fortnight ago.

Asking for the location of Kazakhstan is merely a generic device for the TV programme, as the round involves pinpointing certain events or identities on the outlined map of a country or continent, but using Kazakhstan helps to explain the mystery behind the objective. Just where is Kazakhstan? Well, it is a land-locked country that gained independence from the former Soviet Union in December 1991, and is bordered by Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea to the south-west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic to the south, and China to the east.

According to Wikipedia, its population is 19 million, of whom 1.9 million live in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest metropolis, set in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains and the site of the country’s sole horseracing centre. There, two tracks are part of an equestrian centre that caters for 300 horses, and it was there that Kabirkhan had his first race. Thanks to World Horse Racing, the digital media company formed and funded by Ascot and Goodwood racecourses and the Breeders’ Cup, Hong Kong Jockey Club and Victoria Racing Club, a video of Kabirkhan’s debut is available on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Exiting from starting stalls, the three-runner field careers round a left-handed dirt track, where there is little evidence of formal fencing but plenty of standing water, before Kabirkhan pulls away impressively towards the finish. Drawing on information from a fascinating article in the Englishspeaking newspaper the Astana Times, which is available online, Kabirkhan won twice more in Kazakhstan, before he was bought by Tlek Mukanbetkaliyev, who sent him to be trained in Russia. There he mixed more wins with a second in the Russian Derby, before in January this year he was shipped to the Watson yard in Dubai.


Mukanbetkaliyev has a small string of horses trained in Russia by Arslasngirey Shavuyev, whose 2013 Group 1 Preis von European winner Meandre was ridden by none other than Adrie de Vries. For the moment, though, all eyes are on Kabirkhan, for whom an appearance in the Dubai World Cup would be the next step in a fairytale story that has already written first-time chapter headings for a UAE winner from Kazakhstan, a Group 1 thoroughbred race for trainer Watson, an overseas Group 1 for jockey Pat Dobbs, and a Northern Hemisphere Group 1 success for sire California Chrome, the 2016 Dubai World Cup winner. California Chrome retired to stud in 2017 and Kabirkhan came from his third crop, the tricky cohort that appears before the sire has had runners to either establish or destabilise his reputation.

This aspect, combined with the fact that the mare Little Emily had missed foaling for four years after her first two offspring, probably conspired to make her latest foal (Kabirkhan) of such little attraction when he went up to the Keeneland September yearling sales that he fetched just $12,000 to a bid from Russian agent Nadir Khassanov. From the epicentre of America’s breeding industry in Kentucky, Kabirkhan found his way to Kazakhstan, and the rest, as they say, is history. Except that there could be more to come from Kabirkhan and his family, including his three-year-old halfbrother by Global Campaign, who is owned by Mukanbetkaliyev. Then there is Little Emily herself, the winner of four races from 22 starts and breeder of three winners. When all seemed lost, she was sold for just $1,000 in January last year. The next big question may be: where is Little Emily?